Liner Notes: In Defense of Third Eye Blind

Third Eye Blind’s debut self-titled album turned 18 years old last week. For some, the album has been relinquished as no more than a relic of the 90s; few non-fans look past its hits “Jumper” and “Semi-Charmed Life,” but it’s actually a near masterpiece that’s solid all the way through.

Third Eye Blind, fronted by Stephan Jenkins, were a local favorite in their native San Francisco Bay Area, but they had their big break when they opened for Oasis in 1996. Although small-scale and unsigned, they received an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the crowd, and even performed an encore – a rare occurrence for an opening band, as critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine pointed out in a biography of the band for Rovi. Third Eye Blind signed with Elektra/Asylum soon after their performance and released their certified 6x Platinum debut.

It was their most successful album by far; none of their follow-ups were of bad quality, but the band found it difficult to one-up the massive commercial success of their first. The band lives on perpetually through their hit singles, but the rest of their catalog has fallen into near-oblivion outside of their fan-base.

I could write an essay on how much I love “Semi-Charmed Life” alone, the way it perfectly mixes euphoria and nostalgia in a rushing pulse of infectious energy. It’s actually a good representation of the rest of Third Eye Blind’s work – all of their songs have the same strong presence – they don’t do anything passively – and the bittersweet twinge of mixing happy and sad and a bunch of other feelings.

Frontman Jenkins’s roots as an English major shine through, as the album is driven by his songwriting. Every now and then you can catch a literary reference – like the seamlessly wound allusion to the Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan in “Losing A Whole Year” (“your voice sounds like money,” a line almost directly lifted from the book’s text). “You want to know how deeply my soul goes? Deeper than bones,” Jenkins sings on “I Want You” – an assertion made evident by his knack for storytelling. The incredible ballad “Motorcycle Drive-By” was actually written lyrics first; Jenkins structured the song to fit the words, resulting in some uneven time signatures, but they only add to the song’s power.

In fact, ballads are where the band excels, and their debut album is full of them. “How’s It Going to Be” is also deeply moving, with lines like, “I want to taste the salt of your skin/the soft dive of oblivion.” However, the closer “God of Wine” has to be one of the band’s masterworks, sonically cascading and lyrically heartbreaking. Jenkins is at his best here, with lines like, “Every glamorous sunrise/Throws the planets out of line/A star sign out of wack, a fraudulent zodiac,” and “the siren song that is your madness/holds a truth I can’t erase/all alone on your face.”

Of course, all of the credit does not lie in Jenkins; the rest of Third Eye Blind’s bandmates are equally formidable. As Jack Appleby wrote for Absolute Punk, ‘Anyone can play power chords – I expected professionals to up the ante. More than that, I yearned for music that could combine accessibility with phenomenal musicianship, a balance rarely achieved. Kevin Cadogan found that musical nirvana. Take those bouncy verses in “Losing A Whole Year” or the no-strum-intro and signature riff to “Graduate,” tricks like that were never found in radio rock during that era, and haven’t been since.’ A review on Punk News further describes the band’s synergy: “Behind this album was the original creative force of other members: Kevin Cadogan on guitars, Arion Salazar on bass, and Brad Hargreaves on drums. These members complemented Jenkins very well, helping him flesh out the tracks and make them seem more than just academic, journalistic diary pieces. Songs like my favorite jam “Narcolepsy”, “Burning Man” and “London” were rockin’ tunes, carried along by the tight musicians. Everything seems organic, never holding anything back and letting it all come out.”

My favorite part of this album has always been the way it connotes such a specific time and place; whenever I listen, I feel like I’m in the sun-drenched Bay Area, I feel like I know it. But beyond that, the album tells the story of this poignant and pungent time in life where everything is happening at an explosive rate, a best of times, worst of times situation. The album embodies that same sense of parallelism; it rises and falls in such a life-like rhythm. It seems to be the soundtrack to the time in your life where you know everything is happening – falling in and out of love, getting in and out of trouble, finding and losing happiness and then finding it again and viciously holding on – it’s all bottled and captured here.

However you feel about Third Eye Blind, you can’t argue that they weren’t always reaching for something more, elevating daily life into something anthemic. “I want something else” isn’t such a bad mantra.

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