I’m not going to lie to you, folks. The first time I listened to Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life,” the song put me in a state of pure pop bliss — in fact, it was one of the last times I can remember hearing something on the radio and actually being excited to go buy the CD. The song tossed the last handful of earth on grunge’s coffin, reappropriating the airwaves once and for all for clean-cut, mildly dangerous dudes who knew how to cover a hook in sticky, sweet ear candy. More aggressive than Counting Crows and poppier than Collective Soul, the band seemed, on the virtue of its debut single, ready to rule the world.
Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. As I discovered soon after purchasing the band’s self-titled debut, “Semi-Charmed Life” was the first single because it was far and away the best song on the album. Yes, yes, I know — Third Eye Blind spun off a number of hitlike singles, including “Graduate,” “Losing a Whole Year,” and the dreaded “Jumper.” But none of them had the impact “Life” did, for the simple reason that they weren’t that good. In fact, the main thing “Semi-Charmed Life” had in common with the rest of Third Eye Blind was that it illustrated frontman Stephan Jenkins’ weakness for ponderous, borderline nonsensical lyrics masquerading as deep rock & roll profundity. Lines like “I believe in the sand beneath my toes / The beach gives a feeling / An earthy feeling / I believe in the faith that grows / And the four right chords can make me cry / When I’m with you I feel like I could die” sound like the work of a high school senior who has been reading a lot of bad poetry — and that was, perhaps not coincidentally, the level of maturity displayed by Jenkins in a rapidly multiplying series of awestruck anecdotes from people he (allegedly) stepped on, burned, or offended during the band’s quick ascension. It takes a healthy ego to be a rock star, and the music industry is full of vituperative jerks, but according to the rapidly spreading legend of Stephan Jenkins, the world was witnessing the birth of a whole new evolutionary breed of asshole.
And then came, dear Jesus, the band’s live performances. Witness the unholy falsetto terror that is this 1997 appearance on David Letterman’s show:
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So, to recap, we have a filler-laden debut album, an egomaniacal lead singer who seems determined to make people hate him wherever he goes, and a band whose live performances in no way replicate the CD experience. Third Eye Blind was, in other words, a perfect candidate for the sophomore jinx, and though they managed to avoid falling into a Spin Doctors-shaped career ditch with their second album, 1999’s Blue, it didn’t come close to selling the six million copies its predecessor had — in fact, if it hadn’t been for the catchy, vaguely “Semi-Charmed Life”-ish “Never Let You Go,” it probably would have been an utter dud. (Like Third Eye Blind, Blue was packed with songs most people never wanted to listen to again, evidenced by the album’s frequent appearance in five-for-a-dollar used bins for years after its release.)
At this point, with sales plummeting and Jenkins getting more attention for his love life than his music, the band did the sensible thing and took a few years off, staying out of the limelight until 2003, when their third album, Out of the Vein, was released just in time for the WEA-commissioned vaporization of Third Eye Blind’s label, Elektra. Faced with the unbeatable combination of an imploding industry, the band’s abandonment by roughly 5.5 million fairweather fans, and a complete lack of label support, Vein stiffed quickly and quietly — a failure compounded by the fact that it contained Jenkins’ most mature, consistent batch of songs. And okay, that really wasn’t all that impressive an accomplishment, but still: with a hit as putrid as “Jumper” under its belt, there’s no way Third Eye Blind should have seen a catchy, smartly melodramatic single like “Blinded” whimper down the tubes.
And that has been that for 3EB — at least as far as most of us were concerned. As what would become a six-year gap between full-length albums commenced, and the hitmakers of the late ’90s gave way to second-generation nu-metal acts and the Auto-Tuned pop brigade of the aughts, the world at large forgot about the band, but a funny thing happened on the way to package tours with Dishwalla and Deep Blue Something: Third Eye Blind developed a relatively small, but surprisingly fervent, hardcore following. They kept the band busy on the college circuit during its time away from the recording studio, and at this year’s SXSW, when its long-in-the-works fourth album was still months away, those fans raised eyebrows across the blogosphere by spilling into the street during 3EB’s showcase.
And somewhere, a lone tear spilled down the cheek of the Spin Doctors Fan Club’s president.
Which brings us, at long last, to Ursa Major, Third Eye Blind’s fourth full-length release (and first for its own imprint, the Sony-distributed Mega Collider Records). It arrives in a miniature flurry of new albums from semi-forgotten late ’90s pop bands, including Marcy Playground and Sugar Ray; since I’ve already written up the former and refuse to allow the latter to darken my eardrums again, we’re stuck with Vanessa Carlton’s doot-doot-douchebag of an ex-boyfriend and his band’s comeback bid. Which is actually, it rather pains me to say, not too terrible a fate.
As with the first installment of this series, I approached this week’s You Again? album with the expectation — nay, the fervent hope — of hearing something truly awful, a collection of songs that I could put in a paper bag, light on fire, and leave on Jason Hare’s doorstep. I was full of morbid curiosity, and counting on Third Eye Blind to satisfy it, one unintentionally hilarious line at a time. But no, they had to go and record an enjoyably solid, albeit unspectacular, set of songs that — though not without the occasional Jenkins groaner — threads the needle pretty nimbly between past and present. Nothing here suggests the rafters-shaking pop majesty of “Semi-Charmed Life” or “Blinded,” but on the other hand, there really aren’t any bad songs — only pompous song titles (“Dao of St. Paul” and “Monotov’s Private Opera” on one album? Oh my). Jenkins’ ability to infuriate remains undimmed, but as a songwriter, he’s learned to step back from that ledge, my friend, and paint his protagonists as people whose stories are simply worth telling rather than deserving of U2 levels of grandeur. Ursa spreads its charms across its dozen tracks rather than shooting its wad on one terrific single, which is fortunate, because singles no longer matter; as a result, it may very well be the band’s best — or at the very least, most consistently enjoyable — album. Songs like “Sharp Knife” and “Water Landing” won’t return Third Eye Blind to the Top 40, but they aren’t embarrassing, and they aren’t empty exercises in nostalgia — they’re unexpectedly assured steps forward from a songwriter whose early work gave little indication he’d still be releasing major-label albums, let alone creatively flourishing, over a decade into his recording career.
So there you have it, folks. Twice now, You Again? has gone trolling for shitty new music from artists well past their dubious prime, and both times, I’ve come away painfully, publicly empty-handed. We may need to start looking for easier targets.