Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Third Eye Blind - Ursa Major - 2009

It's really a shame that people had mostly written Third Eye Blind off after "Out Of The Vein," the band's third album, failed to make much of a splash. It didn't help that their label, Elektra, fell apart around the time of that release, and the band was left with no one to help push the album to radio stations, and generate promotion for it. It was the band's first without guitarist Kevin Cadogan, so there was a bit of apprehension that the band wasn't going to be able to deliver the goods. Thankfully, "Out of the Vein" was a great album. Unfortunately, it never really found an audience.

It would be six years before the band would be heard from again, and by the time the band's fourth album, "Ursa Major," dropped, the band's audience had shrunk significantly, and the album hit with a big splash but that splash dissipated quickly, and the album didn't stick around in the public limelight. I've always felt that was unfortunate, because "Ursa Major" might be the band's best album.

Between "Out Of The Vein" and "Ursa Major," singer/songwriter Stephen Jenkins had been through the wringer. His fights with Kevin Cadogan had been truly epic (and litigious), the Elektra debacle had hurt his pride, , their long-time bassist Arion Salazar had been removed from the band (reportedly for excessive drug use), he'd been through not one but two very messy and public relationships (the first with actress Charlize Theron and the second with singer/songwriter Vanessa Carlton) and neither had ended without leaving some battle scars, and he'd had a massive case of writer's block. "Ursa Major" was reportedly held up for the longest time as Jenkins tried to get lyrics he was happy with, rerecording some of the tracks multiple times, if the internet is to be believed.

And yet, somehow, all of those scraps are what needed to happen. Jenkins is wiser, better composed, and a ton more insightful than he had ever been before. It's not like Third Eye Blind ever put out a bad album, but there's something... wounded about "Ursa Major," as if Jenkins is trying to figure out why all the paths in his life led him to this point.

A number of the songs on the album around about relationships in various states of disaster - "Why Can't You Be," "One In Ten," "About To Break" - but there's also songs that reveal Jenkins is getting through it, such as the resolve of "Dao of Saint Paul," which hangs on the refrain "Rejoice, evermore." The lyrics wrapped around it show he's not satisfied with his life, but he knows that he has to take comfort in the fact that his life has both good and bad in it. "Well, I confess / that so far happiness / eludes me in my life / it had better hurry up / if it's ever to be mine / it had better hurry up now / if we're ever going to find / what we're looking for..."

This isn't to say the album doesn't have rip-roaring rockers. The first single, "Don't Believe A Word," shows that Jenkins hasn't lost a step in writing the 'big rock anthem' and the opening track of the album, 'Can You Take Me' fits into that same vein. But a good portion of the album is slightly more low-key. And yet, it's hard to be bluesy when you have an album that includes the lyrics "My duct tape vest is a party vest / it's really all I own" from "Bonfire," a song that straddles perfectly between rocker and restrained downbeat.

There was talk that the "Ursa Major" sessions had yielded a ton of great songs, so many that they had an entire extra album left over, and they were going to put those songs out as "Ursa Minor," but that never happened, much to my sadness. That got put in the same camp as the instrumental EP (rumored to be called "Symphony of Decay") that the band was working on that also never got released, except for one track, "Carnival Barker," a portion of which was a preorder bonus with "Ursa Major." (If you go digging on the internet, you can find a handful of these tracks, though, including the full 7+ minute version of "Carnival Barker," not that I would ever suggest you do such a thing, no, surely not.) You have to wonder if 3EB is like Prince in that there's a vault of stuff we're never going to hear until everyone in the band is dead. 

In 2011, Third Eye Blind recorded a great song, "If There Ever Was A Time," honoring the Occupy movement, and gave it away free online. And that was the last we've heard of them, although the band is supposedly recording album five in Hollywood right now, with an intended summer release.

The scuttlebutt is also that it'll be Third Eye Blind's last album. I hope that isn't true, but even if it is, let's hope Stephen Jenkins just goes solo and keeps making music, because regardless of how he feels about it, he's getting better and better at this as he keeps doing it.

It's okay to be hurt, Stephen - you just can't let it defeat you.

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