“Hi, we’re Third Eye Blind from San Francisco, California, and we’re high as kites.” Stephan Jenkins beams at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion crowd from the depths of his hoodie; his legs are encompassed by shorts and a glossy cylinder of fabric that could be classified as a skirt. Behind him, the stage lights stir and pulse in intricate patterns. The venue, which seats 5,000, is nearly full, people pouring from their seats in appreciative arcs, their ages ranging from five to 50. Wind works through oblique eyelets of space visible beyond the stage, reducing the massing temperature beneath the ribs of the overhang and giving shape to a pleasantly mild June night in Boston, in the year 2015.
If the timing seems curious, that’s because the authors of “Semi-Charmed Life” feel more calibrated toward the cumulative, hallucinatory effect of ’90s alt-rock nostalgia bills—for instance, the Summerland Tour, created by Everclear’s Art Alexakis and Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath, which this year features the Toadies, American Hi-Fi, and Fuel—than triumphant headlining gigs. But among their contemporaries, on a pure song-to-song level, Third Eye Blind are one of the most consistent, individual, and uncompromised bands remaining in the reduced modern-rock landscape. They’re accompanied on tour this year by Dashboard Confessional, a band that generates some nostalgia of its own, especially among fans of “emo.” (Another crucial long-term strategy is to avoid being pigeonholed by a soon-to-be-embarrassing genre tag.) Dashboard nostalgia accesses a less remote range of time, i.e. 2001 to 2006, but fans of both bands share a sensibility, which Dashboard frontman Chris Carrabba conveys halfway through their own Boston set: “You motherfuckers can really sing.”
Third Eye Blind released their first record in 1997, from which three singles—“Semi-Charmed Life,” “How’s It Gonna Be,” and “Jumper”—overwhelmed rock radio in the late ’90s. That it manages to a coherent, dynamic, and sensitive album beyond its singles is remarkable; the abrupt shift in speed halfway through “Narcolepsy” feels less rhythmic than neural, like a synapse firing. The follow-up, 1999’s Blue, contained the modern rock hit “Never Let You Go,” but success on the level of their debut grew more elusive as the gaps between records lengthened, and band continuity shattered. “Here’s where I’m at right now,” Jenkins announces in Boston, in between generous breaths. His syllables blur into each other. “This is the week we finally released Dopamine, our new album.” He indicates three relatively recent additions to the band: guitarist Kryz Reid, bassist Alex LeCavalier, and keyboard player Alex Kopp, who join longtime (and likely long-suffering) drummer Brad Hargreaves. “They played on this record and made it theirs.”
Dopamine is the first Third Eye Blind record since 2009’s Ursa Major. It’s also their first since shedding longtime guitarist Tony Fredianelli and founding bassist Arion Salazar. It does not seem a product of six years of work, which is to its benefit; its appeal is located in the economy and space of its arrangements. Guitars serve a more textural purpose; the bass in “Everything Is Easy” and “Back to Zero” moves with a refrigerated blur reminiscent of early Cure records. “Something in You” builds out of draining synths and gently collapsing piano chords; the dynamic shifts of “Shipboard Cook” resemble fan-beloved early Third Eye Blind track “Motorcycle Drive By,” but it feels lighter, more pneumatic in the way its discrete sections flow into each other. For the first time in the band’s career, these songs seem to generate atmosphere, instead of deliberately sculpting it.
Blue is definitely more of a sound-sculpture, less a collection of discrete riffs than a blurry mass intricately marbled by guitars. A highlight tonight at the Pavilion is “Wounded,” which is notable both for how much it seems to animate the crowd and also how deftly it circumnavigates a chorus. It progresses through its different sections as if through a current of distraction; in its quieter moments, the guitars pulse remotely like satellites through the thickness of space, and when it expands into an actual rock song, it still sounds curiously sensitive to its own movements. The song is theoretically about someone who was sexually abused, and throughout, Jenkins tries to rescue this person from the enormous depth of that shadow: “Now it’s fall and your shoulders get tighter / Nervous flicks on your lighter.”
Jenkins is, by several accounts, an incorrigible asshole. John Vanderslice, the owner of Tiny Telephone studios in San Francisco, described his only interaction with Jenkins to the AV Club, and the encounter reads like a hostage situation. “He takes a folding chair and then flips it around backward and then puts it uncomfortably close to me, considering we’re in a large room, and sits face-to-face with me, sitting backward in a chair,” Vanderslice said. Third Eye Blind had scheduled time in the studio, and Jenkins was trying to reduce the studio’s rate through the form of a staring contest. “I think he imagined that I would have been flustered,” Vanderslice continued. “He was doing like 101 intimidating negotiating tactics or whatever that he Googled the night before.” The two guitarists that have abandoned Third Eye Blind over the years, Kevin Cadogan and Tony Fredianelli, both sued Jenkins for undelivered songwriting royalties.
Regardless, he remains an exceptionally acute and sensitive writer. “Why Can’t You Be,” from Ursa Major, is stunning for the flexibility and opacity of its focus, drifting from one partner in a relationship to another and depicting the aggressive form of inadequacy that flows between two people otherwise committed to each other: “Are you frightened by the weight you possess, or is this life just weightlessness?” Jenkins sing with a kind of narrow fluorescence. Of course, two minutes later, he adds, “Sometimes a blowjob’s not enough.”
What perspective does this articulate? Is it compromised at some cellular depth? Does Jenkins’ proximity to hideousness give him the unusual ability to translate spectral intimacies? His words are often as earnest and embarrassing as they are surgical, and his instances of rhetorical invention can seem like accidents of rhyme. This is apparent in the vivid collapse of imagery in “Semi-Charmed Life” itself, a No. 1 Modern Rock track about having sex on crystal meth, when he sings, “The sky was gold / It was rose / I was taking sips of it through my nose.” Live staple “Slow Motion” is a play on Natural Born Killers, elaborating the perspective of a teenage sociopath in order to narrowly implicate society. (Because of the proximity of its release to Columbine, the song’s vocals were subtracted from all U.S. pressings of Blue.) But then there are also songs that convey the shattering anxieties of romance with a curious tenderness and precision, like Ursa Major’s “Water Landing,” a breakup song where Jenkins projects the breakup onto the balletic confusion of a plane crash:
You and me are nose-diving
At the speed of whiplash
Life passes by
In an endless plane crash
Muffled “I love you” through an oxygen mask
On my face, brace, brace
And the cabin erupts with religious conversions
God’s sick joke as we lose the engines
Some people scream and some people are gracious
And the reason’s the same
Cause the sky outside is so spacious
Like Dopamine itself, Ursa Major was the product of a six-year delay. In that span, its songs mutated considerably through live performances; compare the demo of “Summer Town” to its final recording, and the latter appears to have shed all dimension, and what little remains sounds empty and metallic, as if recorded in an air-conditioning vent. This endless micro-adjustment is largely responsible for the long delays—a completed Dopamine had been promised in 2012, 2013, and 2014. “I’ll keep playing with a song, and then every time I’ll end up going with the first impulse,” Jenkins told Absolutepunk a few weeks ago. Dopamine is the first Third Eye Blind record on which we glimpse the total scale of this process—one song, “Everything Is Easy,” is allegedly Jenkins’ first draft; the title track has a suspiciously similar harmonic shape, like a distant mutation of that first impulse.
Some of these songs mutate in real time. “Get Me Out of Here” is the first Third Eye Blind song to inherit some of the symphonic density of Queen; it seems to describe Jenkins’ exhaustion with performing, but it feels as if Hargreaves is actually playing slightly too fast, which gives everything else in the song, including Jenkins’ expiring voice, a kind of tensile substance. Which actually reveals something cellular about the operatic glam of Queen and David Bowie: The aesthetic is motivated by the rhythms of nervous breakdown. When the song finally breaks apart, it does so in radial fractures, twin guitars rippling through its surface.
It’s not the first radically compressed epic in the 3EB discography. “The Red Summer Sun,” from Blue, begins with kaleidoscopic guitars gently swimming into each other, but eventually builds into Jenkins howling through his approximate Robert Plant impression. The bridge of “Faster,” from their 2003 album Out of the Vein, feels as if there’s a measure subtracted from it, out of which the chorus lifts off and inverts the gravity of the song, simulating the insane crush of desire Jenkins sings about (“She’s got the nerve to say / She wants to fuck that boy so badly”).
They almost play “Faster” in Boston, but it’s a fakeout: Jenkins merely slurs some of the words from Underworld’s “Born Slippy” over tightly manicured guitar phrases. His voice has endured subtle compromises over the years; at this point, it sort of sounds like the exposed roots of itself. He does not even attempt the falsetto of “Never Let You Go.” But it’s unnecessary anyway: The audience capably sings every word of every song, no matter its popularity or density. The band opens its encore with Dopamine’s “Something in You,” blushes of synths and guitars gathering in soft coronas around Jenkins’ voice. “I’ll take you in no matter what your chaos brings,” he sings, but I hear the line echo; two women a row in front of me have already absorbed the text of the song, two days after the album’s release, and are repeating it back to Jenkins. When they finally play “Semi-Charmed Life,” they extend the bridge indefinitely, but the audience completes it with unresolving chants of goodbyyyyyyye. “We make this shit up as we go along,” Jenkins says, wading across the stage, disregarding the mingled voices of the crowd. “That means we can totally fail, or we can fly.”
Dopamine succeeds almost despite the context it lands in: a severely postponed effort by a mostly reconstituted band and their precarious frontman. “We want you to have our new album,” he tells the Boston audience. “We don’t care if you buy it or steal it. It’s been ours forever, and we want it to be yours.” Then he registers a sign in the crowd requesting “God of Wine,” a deep cut from the band’s debut, and decides to play it. It’s rearranged for piano now, allowing Reid to add delayed accents from his guitar, which echo through the Pavilion as if sounding through an ocean. Notes drift and glow in ambiguous shapes, like phosphorescent jellyfish. Jenkins appears to sign the chorus as he sings it: “I know / I know / I know / I know … I can’t keep it all together.” The best Third Eye Blind songs, no matter how compromised their narrator, are inclusive. They can be inhabited and acted through, and they’re best performed by the people in the crowd singing them the hardest, or the softest, or with a kind of sober introspection. They feel understood by the songs, and the songs expand to receive them.
Brad Nelson is a writer living in Queens. His work has appeared in The Guardian, SPIN, and the Atlantic, and you can find him hungover on Twitter.
Photo by AP.
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