Imagine for a second that you're Jimmy Eat World. You've already made the most ambitious, and arguably best album of your career, in 1999's Clarity. You've already made your most pop-oriented album of your career, in 2001's Bleed American. You're currently being held responsible for creating one of the most anticipated follow-ups to a success story that almost never was (seriously, do you think "The Middle" would have been such a smash had the band signed to an indie? Think again.). So with all this pressure put on you by fan and critic alike, what do you do?
You freak out, fire the producer that made you/you made (depending on who you ask), hire a dude who's had his thumb in both the indie-cred and radio-friendly pies, and then create the most well-rounded album of your career.
(I'm talking about Futures here. Try to keep up, please.)
The 11 songs on JEW's fourth proper album toe the ever-so-thin line between commercial success and artistic integrity, due mainly in part to producer Gil Norton, who's cool enough to be the guy who oversaw pretty much everything the Pixies put to tape, but is able to create commercial successes, as evidenced by the gold and platinum Foo Fighters and Counting Crows records hanging on his walls. It's because of this dichotomy - remarkably mimicked in JEW's career -- this album works so well.
The band remind their potential audience that they are a rock group first and foremost, with the opening blast of the bouncy title track followed by the biting, dark "Just Tonight...," a song strongly reminiscent of the Static Prevails-era Jimmy. Slowing the disc down slightly are the next two songs (and obvious potential singles), "Work" and "Kill." While "Work" is a peppy pop-rockers with guest vocals from Liz Phair, "Kill" gets the nod as one of the best songs JEW's ever composed, both lyrically and instrumentally, and will easily become the next "For Me This Is Heaven" for a new generation of emotionally-frustrated 17-year-olds worldwide.
Live favorite "The World You Love" is up next, delivering an anthemic "woah-oh" chorus that will soon have thousands singing along, fists in the air. The album's halfway point is first single "Pain," easily one of the most unaccessible tracks on the disc. It's hard, it's dirty, and paired with "Just Tonight..." it makes for a hell of a downer lyrically. That depression sinks in even more with the next track, the six-and-a-half minute "Drugs Or Me," a rather soul-baring, straightforward slow-jam of JEW frontman Jim Adkins' struggles with a drug-using friend. It's almosta bit too cheesy as he croons "I need your haaaaaaaand," but the guy is so sincere that you can't fault him for not using a thesaurus.
"Polaris" kicks the album back up a few notches on the rock chart, with some neat guitar effects, throwing back to Clarity. "Nothingwrong" is this album's "Get It Faster," a straightforward 4/4 angsty rocker, complete with guitar freakouts and background screaming. It's basically "Get It Faster" v2.0, in a good way. As the last refrain of "We've done nothing wrong!" rings out of your speakers, a soft "ooh" melody begins to eminate, signaling the start of "Night Drive," another rather upfront lyrical account that at first glance sounds like a late-night rendevous, at second listen sounds like a late-night breakup, and finally upon further inspection is a confontrational song about a significant other in Adkins' life being an alcoholic, as evidenced through lyrics such as "Pour us a road, we'll both drink and drive," "Your lips go dry but there's sweet inside / wine must go right to your head" and the final belting of "Quitting alone will never get you dry." If nothing else, Futures reveals a far more troubled personal life of Adkins than anyone ever suspected.
Drawing the album to a close with the inspirational anthem "23," Adkins sings the powerful chorus of "You'll sit alone forever if you wait for the right time / what are you hoping for?" You hardly notice that this song breaches the seven-minute mark, mainly because it's so fucking good Anyone can easily pick out the Clarity influence in this track, and it's a perfect way to wrap up Futures as a whole.
But really, this album probably would have never happened the way it did had Gil Norton not been brought aboard. While Mark Trombino is a remarkable producer in his own right, sometimes a separation is needed for both parties to blossom creatively once more. And blossom, Jimmy Eat World did, with a benchmark album. Even the band understands the importance of varied recording sessions, which is why the deluxe edition of Futures comes with a disc of the demo version of each song--and frankly, it sounds like an entirely different album. The lyrics are different, many of the song structures are different, tempos, instrumentation, the works. It's an excellent counterpart to an already-excellent album. The packaging and liner notes, where the band expounds on each demo cut, only increases the ownability of this album.
An essential release, and one of the best of 2004.