On a fundamental level, change comes from within. We may be influenced or pressured by external forces – friends, acquaintances, family – but the first step on the road to change has to be taken by oneself. It might take weeks, months, or even years, but that first step is important, providing the impetus for what lies ahead, and it’s never too late for a new start. The 10th album by the Arizona-based rock stalwarts Jimmy Eat World examines this in detail, arriving 3 years after its predecessor Integrity Blues – as every album before it did, right back to 2001’s breakthrough Bleed American – and stripping the band’s sound back to its essentials.
Crucially, Surviving doesn’t trade in optimism for its own sake, as hinted by the maze-like album art; rather, it’s steeped in the sort of determination that comes from personal growth and reflection. For frontman Jim Adkins, now 43, this personal growth came partially from the decision to quit drinking at 36 – that’s helped inspire the resolute mindset that ran through Integrity Blues and has also informed Surviving. “Don’t hide your face / What you were before / Doesn’t have to be you anymore,” he declares on the clarion-call title track, buoyed by Zach Lind’s thundering drums and an incisive hook, the track building to a spine-tingling peak as it sets out the album’s stall with the sort of confidence only a band whose lineup has remained stable for over two decades can provide.
The idea of remaining true to oneself despite the influence of forces outwith personal control is as much of a political endeavour as much of a personal one, and the personal and political intersect on the barnstorming ‘Criminal Energy’, a look at how that desire for self-advancement in a society where it seems increasingly that the game’s been rigged can often bring the darker tenets of human nature to the surface. “No one you care to recognise suddenly in control / Unfortunate to find what it is inside” Adkins warns on a song aimed squarely at the cult of personality surrounding the current occupant of the White House while cautioning the listener that on a basic level, nobody is immune to such things. Survival can sometimes mean latching yourself onto an idea, for better or worse, and this look at the corrupting influence of power is crucial to understanding the album as a whole. It rocks pretty hard, too, the bridge containing some wonderful guitar interplay between Adkins and Tom Linton.
That desire to move forward can also be a source of real frustration. One has to ‘give [themselves] the right chance over time’, to quote the chorus of euphoric album highlight ‘Diamond’, one of the songs here with smash-hit potential – but sometimes there’s no chance, no payoff, and no real progress; as that song says, it has to be created: “Don’t believe them if they try to sell you something quicker.” Much like Adkins opines on the title track, survival can often feel like complacency like you’re not exactly living. ‘555’ swaps the full-band rock setup for a sparse musical backdrop driven by buzzing synths and programmed beats. The result is a beautifully melancholic song that’s sure to become a live staple, its plaintive lyrics questioning why we take cues from others for things we should perhaps be doing ourselves: “I’m doing the things I’ve been told every day/ Then why does it feel like I’m moving in place?”
The truth of the matter is that there are no quick fixes, and even the love songs on the album are tempered with experience. ‘Love Never’ takes a realistic look at relationships and how they’re often so much more complex than at first glance. “Want[ing] the work more than the reward” is crucial to success in relationships, romantic or others, and this advice is delivered in a three-minute power-pop blast that’s set against the idealism of ‘All the Way (Stay)’, on which the hope of a chance encounter leading to love bleeds into the carefree nature of the track, exemplified by the band cutting loose with a well-placed sax solo, delivered with the requisite aplomb by James King of Los Angeles outfit Fitz and the Tantrums.
The album closes with the brooding ‘Congratulations’, bringing the curtain down on the album with a track that allows bassist Rick Burch his time in the spotlight before exploding into a cathartic rock-out finale – a marked contrast to past album closers like the epic sweep of ‘23’ from 2004’s Futures and ‘Dizzy’ from 2007’s Chase This Light. It explores the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, a wholesale rejection of sneering fuck-you-got-mine rhetoric and a call for solidarity in times of worsening political unrest.
As ‘555’ puts it, Surviving – the album and the act itself – requires keeping one’s focus on the simple things and trying to find some peace along the way; amidst uncertainty, we cling on to what we know while trying to make headway in our corner of the world. The personal, political and polemical combine on a deeply relatable record that seems short on paper but is an impactful listen simply because not one second of its 36-minute running time is wasted. Ten albums in, Jimmy Eat World show no signs of slowing down – if anything, they’re thriving.
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