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“Will We Ever Have Another Rock Album Track as Good as Jimmy Eat World’s ‘Cautioners’?”

There’s probably a certain point on Jimmy Eat World’s breakthrough album Bleed American (2001) [1] where you feel the “Fiona Apple Effect” kicking in and you realize Jim Adkins is the “hardest button to button,” if you will. He’s probably a Virgo, like me, the type of guy who will think twice before wearing a shirt that says “Good Vibes” into work, considering that it might offend some people who are naturally, through no fault of their own, less proficient in administering these “good vibes” around the premises. 

“Your House,” in particular, is a little too full of compunction and ham-handed, pointless, complicating emotion even for me, with that song, I have to admit, ambling along with the passable force of R.E.M.’s “Half a World away,” and about that much self-indulgence, at that. But, let’s face it: Bleed American is a document in extreme sensitivity, sung by one sensitive bloke, in Adkins. Actually, the album, from what I understand, was written under pretty pressing circumstances. The band had changed labels, weren’t enjoying very much commercial success and weren’t really too sure what the future would hold, having to work day jobs to support themselves. Also, apparently, Adkins at some point underwent a breakup, possibly the result of this temporary malady of not being a rock star (which, of course, wouldn’t last much past the release of Bleed American).

So it was a “sea change,” in a sense, as Shakespeare or Beck might say. The travails in Adkins’ life required a reformation of the self, an entirely new identity, more or less, at the precipice of commercial rock’s relevancy and efficacy, even, making it all that more daunting, and meaningful, of a task. So insofar as this element of music as a healing process is the driving force behind Bleed American, “Cautioners,” a track buried at the ninth position and not released as a single, plays as the undeniable centerpiece, both emotionally speaking, and, also, ironically, as I’ll denote, in style, and structure, too.

Calling “Cautioners” a better song that the two biggest singles, “The Middle” and “Sweetness,” is a bold statement, I do realize. Without question, this is an album I typically put on on Spotify (somehow it has a way of sounding perfect on digital… maybe it’s just me) and don’t, thereafter, skip a single track. And I think Jimmy Eat World is a pop band more so than being a rock band, for several reasons, one of which would be the clear, obvious element of production audible on a track like “Cautioners,” the other that I don’t really think they have a default “groove” and the fact of guitar being present on the album manifests as just as much an epochal lunge at contemporary convention than an essential facet of the music’s ordained texture. “The Middle” would have made a great New Wave song, that is, if not necessarily the mastodon, indefatigable third single “Sweetness.”

But, as I will illustrate, “Cautioners” is actually the most important song on this whole album, and finds, in a somewhat cluttered, amusingly compiled mix, the guitar to rarely, if ever, take the forefront. The track opens with these drums that sound like they’re being played out of a Fisher Price boom box, that is, making it clear that the band weren’t going for a Van Halen or AC/DC vibe on this song, or even a Nirvana one, for that matter. The obvious next element that grabs the listener’s attention is the piano, which, from the way it sure sounds, is arranged within methods of musique concrete, or the purposeful rendering of recordings within one at-large production, rather than the sum total of physical human strokes of an instrument. The notes, that is, have this curious and trippy SPLICED anatomy to them, and also play with the concept of octave, it seems, in a way no human hand could in time, not even Stevie Wonder.

So “Cautioners” plays as art rock, at its onset, more or less, but it will be its stark, haunting simplicity throughout, in structure and in lyrics (I think it’s got the fewest words of any song on Bleed American), that will help not only obfuscate it from the ornate world of “art” as a style in itself but also cement as the most classic, most memorable piece of music on Bleed American.

The subject matter in “Cautioners” is incredibly simple, yet, strangely, the word of the title isn’t uttered anywhere within the song’s lyrics. The song is so low-profile that I can’t seem to find anything written on it, in specific, anywhere online, which in a way is cool, because it channels me into that phenomenoligcal development referenced in the technology-chafing While We’re Young (2013) in the age of information that fosters the suggestion of “Let’s just not know.” 

What is easy to know is the emotion being delivered on this song, a spare, close-up shot of Adkins’ heartbreak. In particular, the climax of the song comes in the beautiful way the band lets you think the song is dissolving into oblivion, with a 32-bar break in the lyrics following the second chorus, a pause that, the whole time, doesn’t really feature a “solo” of any point, guitar, piano or otherwise. This extreme ebb in melodic mass gives the impression that the proceedings are over, so when the band hit the chorus again, at four minutes in or so, it’s like a jolt, an airplane’s descent back into Adkins thick atmosphere of pain, purpose, honesty and musical plangency. There should be a term for this seemingly auxiliary revisitation of the chorus but I don’t know what it would be and I always did pretty well at music theory. Anyway, on “Cautioners,” I think, Adkins is telling us how to “bleed American,” and it’s a process of mourning and one that also follows its own channel of decay, rather than the hectic, hurrying occupations to which most of us are subjected on a day-to-day basis in this country. 

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[1] This was the original title of the album and it is, as well, today, having undergone a temporary ban from, I believe, the record label, possibly under pressure from the FCC, from 9/11, which took place a month and a half after its release.

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