For the first time again: Revisiting a late-90s pop gem

I spent some minutes opining on the legacy of Third Eye Blind’s late-90s stuff earlier this month. (They played Nautica May 29, and it was fantastic, but that’s not really the point.)

And so here’s another quick thought that I want to move on in greater detail. Or, if not a coherent thought, a heartfelt tangent for whom it may concern.

Probably the bulk of people who I’m connected with on [Facebook] were like 10 when the band’s self-titled debut came out. AND IT WAS AWESOME. Semi-Charmed, Jumper, How’s It Gonna Be, even London was accessible as one of the edgier tunes on the album. Graduate, duh. Losing a Whole Year, etc. But the themes on this album (most albums? most music?) tend to elude even the worldliest 10-year-olds, far as I was from that qualifier.

If you turned up the volume on Jammin’ 92.3 in your parents’ Chevy when Semi-Charmed Life came on but then sort of let the album drift from your consciousness and further back into your stash of CDs, then you might have missed out on some of the stuff Stephan Jenkins was doing with his lyrics. You had to grow up first. Or at least *age* a little. (Then again, maybe I’m projecting or something.)

College was a great time for these songs — a bunch of 10-year-olds from the late 90s aging into an amorphous bar scene and still having at least *the hits* to belt out at closing time (including, separately, Semisonic’s iconic Closing Time). Then, amid the haze of, say, a Court Street apartment living room, the deeper cuts would make a great soundtrack. Even as the band dropped a new album sometime around junior or senior year, the contrast between those (fine enough) songs and the early stuff just further illuminated the latter.

I dosed myself pretty heavily on the album over the years, now and then finding that a song here and there had burrowed into a strange place in my psyche. Time will learn you a few things, if you let it.

I remember very specifically that I got the album for my 10th birthday (thanks Mom & Dad!), unwrapping the telltale shape on hardwood floors in a home we had just moved into. Fall of 1998. Got my turn at being a “new kid” that year in school. But I wanted to hear Semi-Charmed Life and Jumper. It was upbeat and poppy enough to cling to; I couldn’t have told you what I thought the music meant at the time.

Each song on that first album is smothered thick with metaphor, which is one of the great things here. Jenkins was never talking about *the city of* London. The alcoholic weight in God of Wine is a placeholder (same for the meth bender in Semi-Charmed Life). Vampires, narcoleptic trips, graduation (well, that’s an easy one), the sink full of dishes, etc. etc. Distinctly tough shit for a kid to grasp in fifth grade. But yeah, it was upbeat and poppy on the surface.

It actually feels odd to enumerate that sort of shit — the signals I’ve weirdly homed in on — because how does a reader or a listener relay what they pick up in poetry? I guess, as I’m writing this, I’m falling back on the old ecstatic problem with art: The musician ‘encodes’ his/her message, I ‘decode’ it over the years, then ‘encode’ again in this highly unnecessary little thing here, then you’ve gotta ‘decode’ my riff again and either fire up Spotify and revisit this nigh 20-year-old spark of an album or ignore it altogether. Either way.

I think the main thing is that this is very much an Important Album. It’s a druggy, moody, depressing bitch of a thing to work through. It genuinely rocks at times, yeah, but it’s an extremely heady collection of songs (and I’m not even touching the instrumentation here, the time signatures, the effects, the guitar tones, the percussion, the jangly late-night lounge math tucked into each measure). I think I know where American culture is filing it away, but I’m confident that it’s another misstep in how most people treat music.

The show was great last week, by the way. Concerts are terrific because they’re so transitory. “This is only happening right now!” The great thing about albums, though, is that you can listen to them for the first time over and over and over…

(Excerpted from an ongoing series/book pitch)

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