A Star Sign Out of Whack

Just a few short weeks ago, Third Eye Blind released their long-awaited fourth full-length album, Ursa Major. I was hoping to avoid reviewing this album until sometime around December or January, when I’ll be posting my Top 10 Albums of 2009 article, but it seems that my hand has been forced. Frankly, I highly doubt that Ursa Major will make that list and being an absolutely die-hard Third Eye Blind fan for well over a decade now – as those of you who know me can well attest – I couldn’t leave the album unaddressed entirely. (Did I mention that it’s terrifying to realize that I’ve been a fan of anything for over a decade now? Well, it is.)

Something ought to be mentioned from the get-go: I love Third Eye Blind. Note the italics. I’m speaking, of course, of their self-titled debut album (1997), and while I generally love the work of the band as a whole, it is that album (and the demonstrably huge impact it made on my life) that keeps bringing me back to Stephan Jenkins and the work of 3EB. I have a lot of personal attachment to what Third Eye Blind has done and I’m well aware that this clouds my judgment considerably; as such, I’ll do my best to keep things objective, but I think that you, my reader, deserve a warning: This might get a little messy (and likely quite a bit convoluted), but try to bear with me and I’ll try to keep it all together.

Third Eye Blind

First, a little history (or at least my take on a little history). During the spring of 1997, Third Eye Blind stormed the airwaves (and our brainwaves) with the searingly catchy “doo-doo-doo” chorus of their first single “Semi-Charmed Life”. Between the cavity-inducing sugar-drenched chorus, frontman Stephan Jenkins’ faux-British accent, a novelty psuedo-rap verse, and some deceptively dark subject matter, it was hard not to get the song stuck in your head (over and over and over again). Additional singles like “Jumper”, “How’s It Going To Be”, and “Graduate” reinforced the notion that Third Eye Blind was a pop-hook generating machine. That all of those songs have dark undertones and veins of radio unfriendly minor-chord progressions was generally overlooked. (It is only fair to note that lots of pop bands release albums that are lined with hit singles but filled with darker, more exploratory tracks – it’s simply the nature of the beast that those songs don’t make it to the radio.) As it is, every track on Third Eye Blind is catchy and poppy in its own way, but it was those darker tracks (at least for me) that masterfully combined hook-driven pop sensibilities with a certain edginess to create aural gold. As such, tracks like “Burning Man”, “Narcolepsy”, and “Thanks A Lot” are more important to the album than any of the singles, not to mention the otherworldly pairing of “Motorcycle Drive By” and “God of Wine”, two tracks with which I am so enamored that I won’t even begin to discuss them lest we all drown in my gushing praise. In fact, though it was – by far – their greatest commercial achievement, I would suggest that “Semi-Charmed Life” is the weakest song on that self-titled release (a statement that is only further proof that this album is incredible).

Blue

By the time Third Eye Blind’s second album, Blue, rolled around in late 1999, their singles were weaker (“Never Let You Go” was the biggest single on the record and probably their worst song to that point) and what were once dark nuances were now full-fledged melancholy anthems (the unedited “Slow Motion”, for example, has become a cult favorite). In some cases (“Anything”, “Wounded”, “Slow Motion”, “Farther”, “Darwin”) this effect worked wonderfully. In others it was less effective (“An Ode to Maybe”, “The Red Summer Sun”) but still enjoyable. Overall, I count the album as a success. It’s very difficult to follow up an album like Third Eye Blind which was well-received both critically and commercially – especially given the turmoil within the band that eventually led to the departure of guitarist and co-songwriter Kevin Cadogan – and, though the band had faded from the national-radio spotlight a great deal, I think they did well with Blue on both fronts (though I am admittedly more concerned with artistic success than commercial success).

Out of the Vein

Four long years passed before Third Eye Blind was heard from again. Out of the Vein was released in 2003 without much fanfare. Unlike previous offerings from the band, wherein tracks were clearly single-material or not, the songs on Out of the Vein blurred the line between commercial and avant-garde (obviously, I’m using the term very loosely and relatively here) to the point that no song was a clear cut single. Due to some combination of this lack of super-pop power and the long wait since Blue, Out of the Vein met with very little radio play. Personally, I found the album to be excellent. While it did not have the peaks of Blue, it was more consistent (“Self-Righteous” notwithstanding) and seemed to show real maturation from a band which was now fully mixing the elements of their style throughout all of their tracks. Somewhat unexpectedly and despite some seriously negative reviews for Out of the Vein (something I didn’t know about until recently as – believe it or not – I didn’t have the internet back in 2003), Third Eye Blind was in the process of building an indomitable fan base (by means of extensive touring and word-of-mouth promotion) which would continue to grow and grow until, finally, the release of their fourth effort, Ursa Major, in 2009.

Ursa Major

So here we are, caught up to the present day. “The time of Ursa Major“, as the band has stated it. So what does all that history and all that background mean for the here and now? In a word: disappointment. Ursa Major was delayed repeatedly and even had a few false release dates, the delays generally being chalked up to Stephen Jenkins’ writer’s block, more specifically: the inability to write satisfactory lyrics and melodies. Over the last few years, I was among those trumpeting the need for the as-yet-untitled album’s release, claiming that – no matter how little confidence Jenkins had at the moment – surely anything Third Eye Blind put out would be catchy as hell and, while Third Eye Blind has never had consistently great lyrics, there are always moments of brilliance scattered throughout their songs, so surely this effort would be no different. Regrettably, I was wrong. I can’t help but feel like the constant pressure to “release the damn thing already” finally caught up with Jenkins and Co. and that maybe they were pressured into releasing something that they knew all along just wasn’t ready. But here we are with a finished product, and, whether or not it was ready or even whether or not Third Eye Blind is happy with it, it’s all we’ve got. Unfortunately, it’s abundantly clear why Jenkins was struggling to be satisfied with these songs.

Before I nitpick Ursa Major‘s flaws, I want to point out that there are some quality moments on this album; Third Eye Blind hasn’t completely imploded, they just seem to be very misguided at the moment.

The high point of the album is certainly “Sharp Knife”, a track that hits in all of the right places and – like most of the best moments of Ursa Major – seems like it could have fit in on Blue. Powerful and driving, the song is solid throughout with an excellent pre-chorus/chorus combination that will have you dying to sing along in your car. And while the opening few lines (specifically: “Time tick tick ticks after me, my MP3 is out of juice”) are a little awkward and bumbling, this is more than made up for when Jenkins delivers one of his finest lines in years prior to the first verse: “And all that we call chaos, I will say is by design”. Tracks like “Sharp Knife” are the reason that I love Third Eye Blind and I have to say that I was disheartened to find that its sound is so unique on the album, yet it is not the only quality song on Ursa Major.

It is worth noting that I have a preference for albums with great songs at their conclusion, so perhaps there is hope for Ursa Major in the long run as one of its strongest tracks is the penultimate number, “Monotov’s Private Opera.” Softer than most of their work (though not quite as soft as the B-side “My Time In Exile“), this track is a calming walk that seems the perfect soundtrack for a slow-moving, early-evening, late-November trip to the coffee house (specific, I know). The hook of the chorus (“it’s you and only you and no one else”) is matched in catchiness by the walking melody of the verse and, in an album rife with bad lyrics, this song stands out as being one of the lyrically strongest. (Though is should be noted that – as Jenkins was quick to point out – the “Monotov” of the title is actually an accidental misspelling of “Mamontov“; it seems fitting that, on this album, even the strongest tracks have failings.)

If “Sharp Knife” and “Monotov’s Private Opera” are the top tier of what Ursa Major has to offer, then the next level can be found to have quite a few more songs but quite a bit less quality. The top track in this group is probably “Dao of St. Paul” which also seems like it could have fit in on Blue quite well (especially the guitar solo); it has some passion and – thankfully – solid melodies throughout, and isn’t even diminished by using a very cliched “nah-nah-nah-nah” for a stretch. “Bonfire” is an above-average song but is hampered by being somewhat forgettable (even though the chorus is solid, it lacks a killer hook) and by having the unfortunate “my duct-tape vest is a party best, it’s really all I own” lyric (I mean, bad lyrics get written – but how the hell did that line survive the editing process?). Meanwhile, “Why Can’t You Be?” and “One In Ten” slow things down and are decent enough tracks, but each has their own problems. A live version of “Why Can’t You Be?” was on the Red Star EP (more on that later) and, as much as I hate myself for saying it, was better than the album track as it had a lot more character; plus there’s the fact that the term “blowjob” is actually sung within the song – really, that’s just unacceptable from a lyrical standpoint (and possibly every other standpoint as well). Alternatively, “One In Ten” has an excellent hook during the title line, but the verses are sloppy and the lyrics are sub-par (plus, Weezer pretty much owns the market for the straight-guy-loves-a-lesbian market with “Pink Triangle”, a much stronger song than “One In Ten”).

We come now to two songs that have given me great amounts of frustration and ultimately define the album: “Water Landing” and “Summer Town”. Both of these songs have a vintage Third Eye Blind sound, as if they could have been singles from the self-titled release; unfortunately, both are tarnished (and quite possibly ruined) by extended instances of the pseudo-rapping that was only really enjoyable on “Semi-Charmed Life”. In “Water Landing” this transgression is only momentary and fleeting (though it still does plenty of damage to the song), but in “Summer Town” the rap goes on for nearly two minutes, which doesn’t even take into account that the rap doesn’t begin until the song has actually ended, meaning that Jenkins felt so strongly about this rap that – even though he couldn’t work it into the song proper – he felt compelled to tack it on at the end of the track. Both of these songs show tremendous promise but ultimately come crashing down under the weight of bad ideas and misconceptions (namely the delusional belief that it is okay for Third Eye Blind to rap; because it’s not – there, that’s settled).

The rest of the album is adequate if unremarkable. Tracks like “About to Break” and “Don’t Believe A Word” try to make political statements and make me wonder if Jenkins wants to be “Bono 2.0” a little too much. Lines like “for the lesbians in the bakery/wondering, do you really hate me?/it’s about to break” feel very forced, especially coming from Jenkins, whose best work has always seemed to come in the form of strange introspection rather than outward observation. Heavy-handed statements and political-lyrics-so-poorly-executed-that-I-can’t-help-but-be-embarrassed aside, the remaining tracks of the album offer average to below average pop-rock tracks that, frankly, will most likely leave little to no effect on you.

Unfortunately, I feel like my lasting impression of Ursa Major will come from a track that isn’t even on the album. When the Red Star EP was released digitally in November of 2008, Third Eye Blind released one of the top tracks in the history of the band. The EP consists of the aforementioned “Why Can’t You Be?” live track, as well as the unbelievably terrible “Non-Dairy Creamer” (hands down the worst song that Third Eye Blind has ever released – a winner for that inglorious distinction by a mile), and the title track, “Red Star“, an absolutely incredible sonic experience. The verses are crisp, the lyrics clever (and successfully political), the chorus will grow and grow on you, and the syncopated rhythms will have you tapping along, but somehow this intense and isolated success wasn’t able to translate to any other songs that 3EB was writing at the time. How does this reflect on Ursa Major? Well, in the end, I think that it’s better that “Red Star” didn’t make it onto Ursa Major, because, quite frankly, the album doesn’t deserve it.

When all is said and done, I know I’ll end up being attached to this album in some bizarre way (for better or worse, I know I’ll do my damnedest to love it, at that), but the truth of the matter is that – despite my best efforts – I think I can see this album for what it is: a fairly poor and sub-standard pop album. Not poor and sub-standard by Third Eye Blind’s standard, but by any band’s standard. This album is just not very good, much as I want to will myself to believe otherwise. I’ll still be desperately awaiting the next Third Eye Blind release and hoping for something better because, as disappointing as Ursa Major is, it’s far from being bad enough to poison me against a band that I love so dearly, but the album itself is, in many ways, regrettable. Sadly, “the time of Ursa Major” is time better spent with other albums.

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