Losing a Whole 20 Years – A Look Back at Third Eye Blind’s Debut Album
Amazingly, it's been two whole decades since Third Eye Blind released their self titled debut. Here's a look back at the five best tracks.
There has to be a sense of frustration for any successful band who are only remembered for one track. Such is the case for Third Eye Blind, who despite having been around for two decades known, are still largely known for just one song – ‘Semi-Charmed Life’.
Whether it was the poppy, post-grunge sound of the song or the fact that radio stations decided to play it seemingly on repeat for months and months after the album released, Third Eye Blind were subsequently dismissed as a one-trick pony, with their lyrical and musical depth largely ignored. Despite this, they still managed to sell over six million copies of their self-titled debut album. That’s over a million more than Radiohead’s OK Computer, which still holds curious appeal among rock fans. The initial album from Third Eye Blind hit #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and songs from it could be heard in big 90’s movies such as American Pie and Can’t Hardly Wait.
This month marks 20 years since that album was released. There’s a good chance you only know one (or two, maybe three) songs from this album, or God forbid, you’re one of those people who hears the name Third Eye Blind and says “I loooooove ‘Closing Time’!” (Sorry, that was Semisonic). That in mind, let’s take a look at the five best tracks on the album.
Losing a Whole Year
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According to frontman Stephan Jenkins, the intro song for the album details the life of a rich girl from Bernal Heights, a neighborhood on the south side of San Francisco. It’s the perfect album-starter song. It slowly builds up to a heavy guitar intro, then Jenkins scream-sings about “spending the whole day in bed” with this rich girl in the chorus.
As with all Jenkins-written 3EB songs, there are layers of meaning in play. Jenkins himself was an English major at UC-Berkley, and his knowledge classic literature is not lost in his lyrics. Numerous fan theories believe ‘Losing a Whole Year’ correlates strongly to the The Great Gatsby, a story rich in the American dream and lost romances.
This song was one of five singles released from the album, peaking on the Billboard Alternative Music Chart at #13 in 1998. The song’s video is simple: the band playing the song in front of three laughing women, who are almost oblivious to the music being played right in front of them. The video ends with two cars crashing, symbolic of a relationship gone bad.
“When you were yourself it tasted sweet
But it sours into a routine deceit
Well this drama is a bore
And I don’t want to play no more”
It might have taken an entire year, but Jenkins decided he was done with the girl who was never really into him.
For many people who grew up in the ’90s, this is the 3EB song they know. It played ad nauseam on pop radio. While it has all the sound and feel of a happy-go-lucky jam, it’s really a sobering song about drug use in a similar vein to Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On the Wild Side’.
Radio stations typically played an edited version of the song, distorting the words “crystal meth” and cutting out the entire bridge that refers to being high. The chorus is catchy: “I need something else to get me through this semi-charmed kind of life.” But the lyrics were largely ignored by radio listeners in favour of the upbeat chorus that made the song a summer anthem of 1997, much like Foster the People’s ‘Pumped Up Kids’ back in 2011.
Not everyone loves ‘Semi-Charmed Life’, though. It’s unapologetically poppy in its sound. If anything, it’s a testament to the lack of acknowledgment so many listeners give to lyrical content. In an interview with Billboard in 1997, Jenkins said “it really is funny that people play it on the radio. ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ refers to a life that’s all propped up…People hear ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ as a happy summertime jam, and that’s fine with me. I don’t think the song should be so blatant that I have to come out and say ‘couples who take speed tend to break up, so don’t do it.”
Stephan Jenkins has talked about the evolution of ‘Jumper’, how the inspiration for it was really two-fold: partly about a gay friend wanting to jump off a bridge and partly a desire exorcise the demons of his own tough childhood. Now the song holds up 20 years later as a point of inspiration, encouraging people who are hurting to “break the past away.” Jenkins said in an interview that “When I wrote it, I wrote it as a lament, and now I sing it as a sense of arrival and more exalted, so that one’s definitely changed.”
Like ‘Semi-Charmed Life’, ‘Jumper’ is upbeat, somewhat opposite to what the lyrics would suggest, giving it longevity on the airwaves. Hitting the top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1997, its mainstream appeal carried over into the next decade, even being covered by Jim Carrey for a scene in the film Yes Man.
The song found its way to the forefront recently, being played in 2016 on a stage near the Republican National Convention. Jenkins proclaimed from the stage the song’s message of tolerance, especially in the LGBTQ community. Despite boos from the crowd, 3EB played on, ignoring complaints about not playing their “big hit”, ‘Semi-Charmed Life’. Those complaints were met with little more than a shrug from Jenkins.
Haight Street is one of the more well-known roads in San Francisco. It’s where Jenkins lived for a time early in his life, and happens to pop up in this emotional ballad on love and loss. While some songs on the album live in lyrical ambiguity, ‘The Background’ has a more specific tone to it. It’s a song about a love lost: “Everything is quiet since you’re not around/I live in the numbness now, in the background”, but the references to a stay in a hospital leave us wondering if this was more than a typical breakup.
Jenkins sings about doing things he always did with the girl, such as “walking Haight Street to the store”. But when he refers to having not seen her “since the hospital”, we’re left to wonder what the next layer to the story is. The next verse in the song says “words they come and memories all repeat/ lift your head while they change the hospital sheets”. This takes the details of the song and shrouds them in a cloud of mystery.
The track’s poetic storytelling only makes up half of its beauty. There’s Kevin Cadogan’s guitar solos, some of the best riffs on the album. Additionally, there are moments in the song where the effects being used make Jenkins actually sound like he’s singing in the background. It would never have survived on radio, but for the casual fans who don’t know much of the band or the album, it’s a necessary play to understand the lyrical and musical depth Third Eye Blind are capable of. Just envision Haight Street as you listen to it, and it makes the experience even richer.
Motorcycle Drive By
Have you ever gotten on your motorcycle and ridden across the country to see the person you’re dating only to get dumped by them? Stephan Jenkins has. ‘Motorcycle Drive By’ recalls the story of Jenkins traveling to Chelsea – a neighbourhood in Manhattan – to see his girlfriend. The song paints the picture of a cruel split with a girl and Jenkins being okay with the aftermath.
Driven initially by acoustic guitar, the song crescendos at the ideal moment as a true rock song as Jenkins screams a line repeated multiple times in the song: “I’ve never been so alone, and I’ve never been so alive.” Jenkins has explained in the past that ‘Motorcycle Drive By’ isn’t so much about a girl and the end of their relationship as much as it is about what he learned about himself during the process.
As he closes the song, it reverts back to pure acoustic guitar. Jenkins talks about going back home, to the coast, to surf: “Driving home to the coast, it starts to rain, I paddle out on the water, alone/Taste the salt and taste the pain, I’m not thinking of you again” It wraps up with his line about being alone and alive at the same time. And while the song never became a radio hit, it’s often considered one of the best on the album. So good, in fact, the band Relient K played it on one of their covers albums a few years back, and random music fans have blogged about it being a “perfect song.”
One thing is certain about the first album Third Eye Blind ever released: it’s more than semi-charmed. It’s more than just one song – that “doot doot doot” song that got stuck in everyone’s head. It’s more than a pop rock album. For better or worse, it’s a lyrical masterpiece, one whose true depth will likely never get the appreciation it deserved by mainstream music fans. But that’s a reality that Stephan Jenkins didn’t care about 20 years ago, and he doesn’t care now.