‘Bleed American’ turns 20 – a look back on Jimmy Eat World’s great, big American rock record
2001 was the year that emo broke on a mainstream level, with landmark releases like Thursday's Full Collapse and Dashboard Confessional's The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most that helped bring the genre up from out of the underground. But emo's biggest boost in 2001 came from Jimmy Eat World, a band who had already helped define the genre's second wave in the'90s, and who already thought their chance at a mainstream breakthrough was behind them.
Having started out as a scrappy pop punk band, Jimmy Eat World inked an unlikely major label deal with Capitol Records in 1995 and released their major label debut Static Prevails the following year. It departed from their roots and embraced the darker, more expansive sound of second wave emo bands like their friends in Christie Front Drive, who helped put Jimmy Eat World on the map by releasing a split with them the year prior. It also found original lead vocalist Tom Linton now splitting lead vocal duties with Jim Adkins, who had sung lead on just one song on the band's 1994 self-titled debut LP. Static Prevails wasn't a commercial success, and the band figured they wouldn't last on Capitol for long, so when the label gave them a budget to make a second album, they used the opportunity to go all in and make the most ambitious album they could think to make. The result was 1999's Clarity, a gorgeous, intricate album that artistically took emo to places it had never been -- with Jim Adkins now singing lead on all but one song. Its influence on the next 20+ years of the genre is overwhelming, and it remains one of the greatest emo albums of all time.
Commercially speaking, Clarity had less bragging rights. Its single "Lucky Denver Mint" saw minor success after getting some airplay and being used in the Drew Barrymore film Never Been Kissed, but the album wasn't a hit and -- after Capitol underwent some staff changes -- Jimmy Eat World were dropped. In order to fund their next record themselves, they put out a compilation of previously unreleased songs and B-sides called Singles on the small independent label Big Wheel Recreation in 2000, and that same year they put out three new songs on a split with Jebediah, released by that same label. It included a lovely ballad called "The Most Beautiful Things," the emo-punk banger (and should've-been-hit) "No Sensitivity," and an early version of a suspenseful, mid-tempo alt-rock song called "Cautioners."
Shortly after the release of Singles, Jimmy Eat World began recording their next album with producer (and Drive Like Jehu drummer) Mark Trombino, who also helmed Static Prevails and Clarity, and who agreed to work for free because he believed so much in the band's new material. As for what that material sounded like, the band's punk and emo roots were still there, but they were headed in a different direction. "We’d gotten interested in people like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen – guys who wrote really great, big American rock songs," drummer Zach Lind told Rock Sound. That came through in the music, but Jimmy Eat World interpreted that influence in the way that only they could. This certainly wasn't heartland rock or Americana; it felt like Jimmy Eat World, but it sounded big, anthemic, and open-hearted in a way that did feel more like Petty and Springsteen and less like Christie Front Drive.
As Mark Trombino predicted, Jimmy Eat World's "great, big American rock songs" also had commercial appeal. Major labels eventually caught wind of the new material, Jimmy Eat World ended up signing with DreamWorks, and on July 24, 2001, the world was introduced to Bleed American.
It's one of modern rock's great ironies that Jimmy Eat World wrote their most accessible record once they finally didn't have the pressure of a major label, but it also speaks to how pure the band's motives were. Jimmy Eat World never really did what was expected of them, and they always wrote the songs they wanted to write. Jimmy Eat World didn't think Bleed American would turn them into a household name, and they definitely didn't think "The Middle" would be the song to do it. "I thought that ‘The Middle’ was a joke song for a while," Jim said in that same Rock Sound interview. "It was so clear cut and straightforward, I didn’t think very much about it." "The Middle" was released as a single in November of 2001, and it reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 by 2002, giving both the band and the entire emo genre a place in the charts alongside Ja Rule, Vanessa Carlton, and Linkin Park. 15 years later, Taylor Swift would sing along to it in an Apple Music commercial.
"The Middle" is indeed "clear cut and straightforward"; it makes sense that it caught on with so many people who wouldn't otherwise have listened to an emo band, but it also casts a bit of an unfair shadow over not just this album but the rest of their career. They're not a one-hit wonder -- even Bleed American itself produced another hit with the sporting events favorite "Sweetness" -- but "The Middle" is bigger than Jimmy Eat World itself. It's a fine song, but it only hints at all that Jimmy Eat World are capable of. It's far from the band's best song; it's not even one of the best songs on Bleed American.
The band's own first choice for lead single was Bleed American's opening song, the title track. It might've been a little too aggressive to catch on the way "The Middle" did, but never before had a Jimmy Eat World song come storming out the gate like this. It was heavy in a way they'd never been, but also crisp and tuneful, and it made for the perfect musical backdrop to the panic and anxiety in Jim Adkins' lyrics. When he brings his voice to a scream at the end, it sounds like it's because he'd driven himself to the point of rage. Because of its title, "Bleed American" was pulled from radio in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the album was re-released as a self-titled album. But even if it doesn't soundtrack Taylor Swift commercials or football games today, "Bleed American" remains one of the album's most timeless songs.
"Bleed American" segues seamlessly into "A Praise Chorus" (which was released as the album's fourth single in October 2002), making for one of the most iconic one-two punches in emo history. It's one of those meta songs where it's an extremely enjoyable rock song about enjoying rock songs, and its name comes from the fact that its bridge is a collage of lyrics from other popular songs... and two songs by emo pioneers The Promise Ring. Singing that bridge is Mr. Promise Ring himself, Davey von Bohlen, who's egged on in the last chorus by Jim Adkins, pleading, "So come on, Davey, sing me something that I know!" It sounds like two friends having a little recording studio fun, but it also made for some of Jimmy Eat World's most anthemic rock music, and when the band's fame skyrocketed, The Promise Ring were able to gain some new fans out of it too.
The album's other big single, "Sweetness," had been in the band's repertoire since the Clarity days, and it's really no surprise this one finally took off. Its hook is a wordless, top-of-your-lungs "whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh" with one simple request: "If you're listening, sing it back." To this day, gigantic crowds always do.
With the album's four singles being catchy, upbeat rock songs, and with Jimmy Eat World being invited to open blink-182 and Green Day's Pop Disaster Tour the year after Bleed American's release, some started to peg Jimmy Eat World as a pop punk band. When Pitchfork trashed the album in a 3.5 review, founder Ryan Schreiber opened the review by asking, "Are you a 15-year-old TRL addict looking for a step up from Sum 41 and American Hi-Fi?" But that characterization overlooks what just about every other song on the album sounds like. Sandwiched right in between the four singles is "Your House," which did begin its life as a rock song, but by the time they'd finished it for Bleed American, it became a breezy, rhythmic folk-pop song that sounded more indebted to Paul Simon than to TRL pop punk. Right after "Sweetness" comes "Hear You Me," a swaying ballad that would sound built for slowdances and graduations if it wasn't written about two friends dying. It's also one of five songs on Bleed American with backing vocals from that dog. bassist (and Weezer collaborator) Rachel Haden, whose voice always fused stunningly with Jim Adkins'.
On "If You Don't, Don't" and "The Authority Song," Jimmy Eat World present as a clean-cut power pop band. They're two of the catchiest, sweetest sounding songs on the album. In an alternate timeline, these could have been the singles and Jimmy Eat World might've been grouped with Nada Surf and Spoon instead of blink-182 and Green Day. And "The Authority Song" gets bonus points for featuring one of the most iconic hooks of Rachel Haden's career. (It's also another love song to rock music; raise your hand if you picked up a copy of The Jesus and Mary Chain's Automatic after hearing this one.) On the other, darker end of the spectrum is "Get It Faster," where Jim joylessly sneers "I'm finding out, cheating gets it faster" over the album's most ominous musical backdrop. The song shares its whisper-to-a-scream dynamics with PJ Harvey's "Rid of Me," and the math-metal bridge allows Jimmy Eat World to flex their chops and hint at the direction of their next album Futures.
For all the talk of Bleed American being the simplistic reaction to the experimental Clarity, there are some Clarity-esque moments on it as well. There's a polished-up version of "Cautioners," which originally appeared on the Jebediah split, that finds the band continuing down the atmospheric, cerebral path of Bleed American's now-classic predecessor. And album closer "My Sundown" may be closer to six minutes than 16, but like Clarity closer "Goodbye Sky Harbor," it closes the album with a somber, slow-burning, long goodbye. It's a beautiful song, and for an album that started out turned up to 11, hearing it fade away like this works to great effect.
When you're talking about an album this classic that's been around for 20 years and already has a 32-song deluxe edition, it's easy to come up with fantasy versions of the album, like "how much stronger would it be if it had 'No Sensitivity' instead of 'The Middle'?" But whatever holes you may poke, it's hard to deny at this point that Bleed American is a near-perfect record. Mark Trombino's production was at its warmest and sharpest, the band was firing on all cylinders, and they edited things down to a tight 11-song collection of emo, punk, and alternative rock anthems that all still hold up in 2021. I might roast "The Middle" a little bit these days, but its success was only for the greater good. What better band to bring emo near the top of the charts than Jimmy Eat World? And though Clarity will always be the most important Jimmy Eat World album within the emo scene, Bleed American became exactly what the band wanted it to be: a big, great, American rock record that stands the test of time.
If you don't have a vinyl copy of this classic, you can pick one up in our store. Stream it below...