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Rock Bottom: Jimmy Eat World

Every musician hits a bum note once in awhile. Sometimes they hit a whole album full of them. Those unlovable efforts are the ones this feature, Rock Bottom, is concerned with. Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources, the All Music Guide (for the critical perspective) and Amazon (for the fan perspective). The album with the lowest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll declare the worst. I may not agree with the choice, in which case I'll offer an alternative. Finally, there are some limits. The following types of albums don't count: 1) compilations (greatest hits, b-sides, remixes), 2) live albums, 3) albums recorded without a vital member of the band, and 4) forays into different genres.

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Jimmy Eat World have been together for 25 years now, releasing nine full-length albums (with a tenth likely on its way this year). They're easily one of rock's most enduring acts. They're also one of my favorite bands.

Before we get to determining the worst of their records, lets first invoke one of our rules. The band's 1995 self-titled debut is long out-of-print, and features not only a different bass player, but guitarist Tom Linton on lead vocals rather than guitarist Jim Adkins. The band don't consider it one of their proper releases, and neither does the All Music Guide. Given this, as well as its rarity, we'll say Jimmy Eat World falls under the "missing a vital member" exception.

Given an equal playing field, the album that appears at the bottom of the heap is 2010's InventedAll Music Guide gave it two-and-a-half stars. Amazon reviewers give it a four star average, bringing its total score to 6.5. To seal the deal, the record was also last (well, discounting the debut) on WhatCulture's 2016 article "Every Jimmy Eat World Album: Ranked from Worst to Best." 

There wasn't even a worthy challenger. The album's next closest competitor was 2007's Chase This Light, which had a combined 7 star rating from the two sites. 

So let's talk about Invented. I'll reveal up front that this is one of my favorite Jimmy Eat World albums, so I'm going to be in need of some serious convincing that this is their worst. 

AMG's Andrew Leahey writes, "The problem is that these songs consciously reflect Jimmy Eat World’s age, and emo music doesn’t really support that kind of content... Invented is older, wiser, and perhaps more midtempo than it needs to be." 

Amazon reviewers are united in their view that Invented lacks passion. "Barber" bemoans the absence of "emotion and drive." "Jay" calls it "generic." And "Thuyen Le" says the album is "plain and dull." WhatCulture scribe Jacob Trowbridge wrote that "there's something about the album as a whole that simply doesn't gel." He says, "It feels less like a Jimmy Eat World album and more like a younger band trying their best to recreate a Jimmy Eat World album."

Trowbridge points out that Adkins wrote the songs almost as an exercise in storytelling, using photographs by Cindy Sherman and Hannah Starkey to spark his songwriting and assume the perspectives of the photos' subjects. Trowbridge says this may have created a sense of remove. And this may be what the Amazon reviewers were intuitively reacting to, but it's also a clear case of YMMV. I couldn't love the record if I didn't connect to it emotionally, or if I felt the band weren't doing the same. And that's not the case. For instance, songs like "Littlething" and "Mixtape" evoke that exact same sense of deep yearning I get from "If You Don't Don't" or "For Me This is Heaven." 

Leahy's criticism bothers me the most, not because I think it has merit, but because I think it's based on faulty premises. For one, I don't believe for a moment that Adkins and company spent any amount of time during the Invented songwriting and recording process thinking about whether or not the songs could be categorized as emo. Emo itself lost any sort of cohesive definition following its  commercial explosion in the early-to-mid 2000s. Jimmy Eat World have long resisted being labeled emo and its preconceptions and limitations.

Leahy also undermines his own criticism by labeling the songs "gorgeous" and "tuneful," as if being those two things is somehow less valuable than adhering to genre.

I'll admit Invented has some moments, both musically and lyrically, that initially threw me for a loop. The aggro acoustic opener "Heart is Hard To Find" was very off-putting the first couple of times I heard it. "Higher Devotion" is basically a disco tune. And before I knew about the origins of the songwriting, Adkins portraying a female character on "Coffee and Cigarettes" led me to think, "How did not know this whole time that he's gay?!" (He's not.)

But I grew to love all of these wrinkles and oddities, and in fact Invented marks the place where my love of the band turned to a higher devotion.

I clearly don't agree with the critic and fan consensus, so what do I think is the worst Jimmy Eat World album?  For me, it has got to be their second effort, Static Prevails (1996). There's nothing  particularly bad about the record or its songs - in fact there's a lot to recommend there - but it feels like it stands apart from the rest of their discography. Jummy Eat World became a very different band after Static Prevails, and that's the band I love.


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