Photo Credit: Twitter @ThirdEyeBlind
When Third Eye Blind debuted with their self-titled album in 1997, they were in some ways a giant conundrum. While sounding unmistakably like a good-time party band, the Bay Area five piece addressed such as issues as suicide (“Jumper”) and crystal meth addiction (“Semi-Charmed Life”) in their lyrics. They presented this idiosyncrasy right out of the box, not waiting to grow a social conscious as a result of age and experience; or having to do PSAs as part of some legal plea bargain stemming from public intoxication charges or whatever.
Either way, audiences responded: that debut album sold six million copies, making it one of the last major rock triumphs of the pre-download era. Now, in late 2019, 3EB returns with Screamer, their first new full-length release in over four years (and only their second album in a decade). Which, of course, presents yet another conundrum: Will Screamer have fans screaming with delight? Or terror? Or will there be no scream at all, merely the deafening silence of indifference?
Screamer, if nothing else, offers a number of the characteristics which first made the public see Third Eye Blind as being worthy of their attention: the bouncy, enthusiastic song structuring held up by tight, innovative (if occasionally intrusive) studio production. And then there’s lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Stephen Jenkins, who after more than two decades still comes off like a guy you wouldn’t mind hanging out with, even if at times he does continue to sound a bit like an understudy for Anthony Kiedis.
The first half of Screamer, unfortunately, doesn’t offer much in the way of variety, coasting mainly on the sound that anyone is still familiar with from the band. “Ways” is an inviting, highly enjoyable cut featuring a rap under the verse. It also gives an idea of the band’s overall mind frame this far into their career (“Well the truth is, I’m just glad I’m here”). “Tropico Scorpio” is a strong mid-tempo offering on which bassist Alex LeCavalier (who joined in 2012) more than makes a case for his value as a band member.
By the somewhat banal “Turn Me On,” we almost give up on expecting any surprises from Screamer. Then comes “Got so High,” the album’s equivalent of a Super Bowl halftime show, in which they throw out everything from Seventies AM (the opening piano suggests Exile’s “Kiss You All Over”), a nerdy spoken word section, and what sounds like an effort to parody the later Beatles and ELO. All this, plus the inexplicable repeat of the words “sugar, sugar” (if they’re trying to desecrate the wholesomeness of the Archies, someone should tell them the show Riverdale already beat them to it).
Odd as the track is, it seems to almost liberate Screaming, providing the rest of the album with a license to go beyond the Third Eye, although the results remain mixed. “Who Am I” is a likable and poignant ballad, possibly their crack at the more somber work of the Beach Boys (as if to drive the point home, there’s also an acoustic version). “Light It Up” shows a last minute (serious) British influence, shining a beacon on solo John Lennon and Eighties new wave. 3EB then tries to hammer the sound of Nine Inch Nails with “2X Tigers” (they miss, unfortunately).
“Take a Side” is an admirable track, in some ways relief-inducing wind-down for the album, a serene tune that almost comes off like a group therapy session where we look back and think about what we’ve learned. Still, on another level this may be part of the problem, as some will find much of Screamer just a bit too preachy, assuming they’re even able to decode the messages that lyrics like “better to get dirty than to be unclean” are attempting to convey. What we can probably guess, however, is that ending the album with a song called “Take a Side” is Jenkins and Third Eye Blind’s way of acknowledging that the record will inevitably be divisive. In the end, Screamer offers some fun and some learning, but maybe there should be a just bit more of the former.