I have no right to review Slippery When Wet. I can’t break down Born to Run. To me, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds are beyond approach. I lack the bona fides to critique such eternal landmarks, not least of all because I wasn’t there to experience them. Awareness of the musical zeitgeist of a decade is no substitute for being a part of a movement. I want to be there when the next album that defines its time drops. Maybe, I thought, maybe Ursa Major will be that album.
This was wishful thinking from the start. Third Eye Blind already had their breakout. The self-titled debut sent fully a third of its tracks coasting into the Top 20, including Semi-Charmed Life, the No. 1 hit famous for the shock it creates when your sing-along is shattered by the realization of what the verses are describing. Still, the six-year hiatus that followed their third release (throughout which there were no signs of a break-up) served to infuse the band with mystery and hype. Maybe, I thought, maybe Ursa Major will be that album.
Available only by digital download, the Red Star EP heralded a return to the band’s true form. Then a new website appeared, 3eb.com, that put community interaction at the forefront. The fan-centric aesthetic and an “Assembly” full of blogs, along with claims from frontman Stephan Jenkins that the upcoming album would be their most political yet, steered the hype away from melody. Why would a band whose cornerstone was a song with overlooked lyrics and a hook for the ages predicate their overdue return to the limelight on opinion and activism? New grounds trembled in anticipation of breaking. Maybe…
“I want a riot, yeah!”
The rallying cry of the lead-off track has my fist in the air! The guitars are surging back with familiar energy. The pitch is rising, so I crank the volume and get caught up in the rasp of passion in Stephan’s voice:
“Yes I am dying to be freaked!”
Yes, I am d– wait, what?
Instantly I’m back in 1997 reliving the shock. So, what kind of riot was he talking about? A quick check of the lyric liner tells me the whole song is open to at least two interpretations: grassroots firepower or a plea for sex. Alright, Stephan Jenkins, you got me.
But the music goes on. Brand-new hooks revive with full confidence the old Third Eye Blind swagger. Rolling snares and bam-bam rhythms lead you in and carry you like a wave from verse to verse. The slurred lilt of the vocals are so instantaneously familiar that I had little trouble singing along not just on the first listen, but even at the first iteration of a chorus. Then again, I was a pretty big fan.
Weren’t we all? Who among us, born on the far side of the great divide that is the year 1990, wouldn’t hop on board at the first chord of Jumper? Thank your lucky red stars, because fully a third of Ursa Major could have coasted into the Top 20 at the end of the last millenium. Not to delude you; without the full promotional force of a major label (they recorded on their own as Mega Collider Records), these singles won’t see multi-platinum sales. Besides, kids today are much more taken by their angry Seethers and their dreamy Jason Mrazs.
But the punchline is missing. The melodies are what we all want, but this was supposed to be an intellectual firestarter! Members of the Assembly may dissent, but what I heard was less a call to action and more what I’ll label “forward-dating.”
Through lyrics that remain as fluid and deft as ever, Stephan Jenkins has attempted to emphasize that he is here and now. Explicit references to online dating, flat screen tv, and mp3 players appear distinctly unromantic amidst the surrounding metaphors and emotional outpours. An entire song about “trying to flip butch chicks” and (elsewhere) an isolated mention of “Africa where life is cheap” might equally elicit groans from apathetics who find vocal activists oppressive. Opening the cd case, you run into an advertisement for Third Eye Blind ringtones before you find the cd itself. But all of these prove to the listener when Ursa Major was written. Right now.
The Assembly – in fact, the overall intent and form of 3eb.com – now makes perfect sense. Third Eye Blind is not retrieving the roots of political rock and roll by emerging from their hiatus reborn as Bob Dylan in three persons. Instead, they’re eschewing the traditional way in which musicians relate to the public. This record wants to kick off a new era; not of what music is, but of how it is communicated.
Thoroughly modern issues feature alongside buzzwords that are neutral but strictly contemporary in order to engage the listener. We are meant to feel that Ursa Major is our album. And to leave posterity with no doubt as to the exact date of its release, Jenkins sings: “Wanna be hustler school M.I.A. / Make a paper plane and then you fly away,” a shout out to last year’s multi-platinum single. He even slips in “I’m your mega collider” which, as I mentioned, is the band’s invented label.
Finally, notice that the website tries to use open membership and encourage blogging and forum posts in order to hand over the reins of Third Eye Blind’s web presence to the fans. This is our album, because the focal points of our daily lives make guest appearances in the songs. This is our website, because we provide 95% of the content, unedited. This is our time, defined.
Maybe, I thought.