Burrow down the right YouTube rabbit hole and you find video from the 2015 wedding reception of two people who are likely unknown to most of its viewers.
Groomsmen proceed to the front of the room, as one—presumably the best man—instructs the bride and groom to take their seats. Sealing the night, he springs a surprise on the happy couple, introducing the singer of the groom’s favorite band, Jim Adkins of Arizona rockers Jimmy Eat World.
We lack examples of bands aging with grace.With a perpetually boyish face, and wearing a blazer and tie, Adkins resembles a kid dropped off at church by truant parents. But his easy charm carries the moment.
“A lot of the songs I have aren’t exactly happy,” he admits. “So I’m going to go with one that’s more in the 80th percentile.”
Acoustic arpeggios announce the title track from the band’s 2007 record Chase This Light. Adkins’s voice glides over the surface of his lyrics, sounding the call “Chase this light with me.” Mere feet from this new family, yet singing like he’s in the presence of a sellout crowd, he invests the second verse with new weight:
My just so, my last call
My life is yours, in your gifted hands
Confetti rainfall in a quiet street
These things I’ve found are special now
The knot is in my reach
Rock ballads are not static creatures. They change shape in transmission; new impressions crystallize from moment to moment.
Listening in a room by yourself, “Chase This Light” makes love sound like a heist two people might just be lucky enough to pull off; watching this particular room lean toward glory, it comes across like the signing of a covenant. Listeners can ask for nothing more, it argues, then to place their life in another’s gifted hands and spend the rest of their days running down what is good and pure in the world.
Utter the name Jimmy Eat World around several generations of music lovers, and a sizable percentage will start humming the band’s 2001 megahit, “The Middle.” If the SAT had a rock and roll section, Jimmy Eat World: “The Middle” would launch analogies like Incubus: “Drive” or Third Eye Blind: “Semi-Charmed Life.” It is the band’s most enduring song, making believers of everyone from basement bands to Taylor Swift.
But Jimmy Eat World doesn’t just tickle the ears of those who play the hits. Starting with its self-titled 1994 debut, the band has stimulated devotion marked by its depth and dimension. Discuss the band with diehards, and stories attach to songs. You’re likely to hear about records serving their listeners, forming the soundtracks to breakups and bold gestures. Discovering Jimmy Eat World, listeners find language for their dizzy declarations of love and the churning they feel if and when that love sours. Adkins and Co. write musical testimonies that arrive before their listeners find a need to speak up.
Writing especially perceptive rock songs brings blessing and burden. Jimmy Eat World’s reputation rises and falls in conversations about the relative merits and drawbacks of the sound we call emo. The band often assumes blame for a brigade of starry-eyed acts that rose up in its wake, stealing and shooting Cupid’s arrows without Jimmy Eat World’s truer aim.
And yet a thorough reckoning with the band’s canon—especially over the past decade—reveals emotional agility, an ability to broker steadfast treaties between youthful sentiment and a maturing mentality. Music from a band that has remained itself across time and station sounds like good news to those of us struggling through our own transitions.
Many Christians acutely suffer growing pains. We hear the winsome invitation of Jesus—come to the kingdom like children (Luke 18:15-17). But we stub our toes against Paul’s admonition to set childish ways aside (1 Corinthians 13:11). Against Biblical calls to maturity, and the backdrop of a world that produces too many premature grownups, we side with Paul and shrug our shoulders in Jesus’s direction.
But we were never meant to pit these teachings against each other. These passages co-exist within God’s Word for a reason. Living out our faith to the rhythms of putting on and putting off, clinging tight and opening our hands in surrender, we seek balance between the two. Fidelity meets liberty as we retain the very best qualities of childhood, casting off that which is unbecoming a child of the most high God.
We wrap our fingers around effortless wonder, simple trust, and an instinctive desire to draw close to those who love us best. We open our hands, letting self-absorption, thoughtless fits, and hasty words float away like balloons.
Perhaps the secret to growing up, and growing up in Christ, is learning to preserve and carry what’s best from each stage in our life cycle. Jimmy Eat World’s records, especially last year’s Surviving, sketch out a model of what that might look and sound like. A band of ever-maturing romantics, they retain all the passion and hoping against hope of their twenty-something years, bending it into a shape befitting guys in their early forties.
Over the integrated groove of “Delivery,” Adkins’s voice sounds as clear as ever, hard-won confidence accenting each note. The band slides seamlessly into the song’s bridge, setting him up for a sublime reading:
Sold on a lie
A lie old as time
You’ll search until you die
Only partially the truth
Someone’s out there for you
But not everybody’s ready to be found.
The band remains committed to narratives that revolve around the search for love. Adkins sings here of the pining which makes hearts beat out of rhythm. All this yearning might cause a younger band to collapse upon itself like a dying star; a slightly older, steadier Jimmy Eat World preaches patience through the waiting.
Adkins reminds listeners that faulty connections have something to do with the signals we send, but also rely on the readiness of the receiver. In rock songs, where romantic love is often treated a sufficient gospel, Adkins preaches a worthy sermon against the lie that we might never be fully known or appreciated.
“All The Way (Stay)” is a thing of beauty—and, in another time and place, would be a worthy rival to “The Middle.” Zach Lind’s propulsive, stuttered drumming meets roaring guitars and, eventually, breezy, boardwalk saxophone that would make the E Street Band proud. Much like “Chase This Light,” the meaning of the song’s massive chorus rests with the listener.
“Honey, if you stay / Hey, hey, we go all the way” could beckon a lover to something short, sweet, and intoxicating. Or it could be a covenant cry sounded after the years of joy and frustration, losing and winning, that mark a marriage. If we stick with this, it ends in forever, the chorus seems to say.
Rough and beautiful lyrical gems surround that rallying refrain. Adkins sets aside doubt and takes up his own compass as he sings, “I believe that what I’ve learned has worth / And what I choose to do means something.”
Throughout the chorus, he asks the how, why, and when of letting his true “feelings show.” This is a remarkable set of questions for a band known for stitching its feelings onto the sleeve of every song; Adkins sifts the difference between grand emotional gestures and the willingness to let yourself be seen in the little things. Jimmy Eat World seems to be learning the difference between simply baring your soul and living naked yet unashamed.
One of the great love songs in the Jimmy Eat World catalog bears the inauspicious title “Love Never.” Over guitars worthy of its breakout “Bleed American,” Adkins starts on a sentiment that could fit any of the band’s past efforts: “Love ain’t never been your friend / Love never gonna hear what you’re demanding.”
Then he turns the phrase, meting out the trustworthy wounds of a friend: “Love ain’t some magical thing / Love never gonna be the way you’re dreaming.” These lines seem to run counter to the very ethos of Jimmy Eat World, yet represent its fulfillment. From its first bars, the band sought the true essence of love; now it sounds a surprising dispatch from within the eye of the storm. Love will never deliver on its promises, Adkins sings, “until you want the work more than the reward / Until you stop asking ‘Oh, what is it all for?’”
Only hearts that long for love, then invest the time to stick around, will claim that real beauty is found in a slow, hot refining fire, not some dream of a destination. Real hope, it seems, does not put us to shame but finds itself in intimate relationship with perseverance and a developing character.
In the substance of all these songs, and the spirit with which the band carries itself, Jimmy Eat World never disavows the restlessness of its early records. Adkins doesn’t suddenly claim it’s wrong to care. Rather, the band achieves healthy dissatisfaction with what we easily settle for, believing the good stuff lies just beneath the soil of the stories we tell ourselves.
When my mind fast-forwards to my sixties and seventies, and the sort of saint I long to be, I focus on verbs like shedding. Within an almost-Buddhist frame, I picture myself placidly above it all, the cares of previous decades cast aside. My memories and mistakes matter only as springboards to old-age enlightenment.
My sensibility shifting, I imagine myself gathering the best of the preceding years. Childlike awe, a youthful inclination toward believing the best of love, the patience my thirties keep delivering to my doorstep. And on and on, living out of abundance not austerity.
We lack examples of bands aging with grace. Pale imitations of glory years and better selves abound. Jimmy Eat World signals a desire to break that mold. Who knows if the band will color its signature sound with silver streaks. But on the strength of records like Surviving, I’m willing to stay and listen, to take it all the way and witness how chasing a truer, better light changes all of us.