Third Eye Blind figured out how to use misleadingly upbeat grooves to narrate the darkest tales of drug abuse and alcoholism, depression and sexual assault.
In the ‘90s, mainstream music often fell under either the pop or grunge genres. The cheerful, sappy love songs and sweet ballads of pop sounded as positive as their optimistic narrators were feeling. The sad songs inspired by drug use, falling out of love, and lost dreams were low and gritty like the events that inspired them. Songs on the radio embodied joy or melancholy, Hanson or Nirvana, the euphoria that comes from the drugs and partying or the gradual decline and withdrawal that emerge the morning after.
On their self-titled debut of 1997, Third Eye Blind figured out how to use misleadingly upbeat grooves to narrate the darkest tales of drug abuse and alcoholism, depression and sexual assault. “I didn’t have anything that had the pop sensibility with the edge… those two different things,” Sylvia Rhone, Elektra Records Chairman and CEO who signed the band 20 years ago, told Billboard in an oral history of the record. “It was either a disposable trite pop band or a deep dark alternative band. We didn’t have anything on the label that brought all those worlds together.”
Despite how quickly they achieved fame and notoriety at once, Third Eye Blind was far from an overnight success. Lead singer Stephan Jenkins had been fine-tuning his musical and songwriting skills for years since he graduated from college with a degree in English, feeling different from the local post-punk and grunge scenes in his home of San Francisco. Third Eye Blind was then formed through Jenkins meeting guitarist Kevin Cadogan, and later recruiting bassist Arion Salazar and former Counting Crows drummer Brad Hargreaves. The group acquired a fan base by performing around the Bay Area, and even convinced an Epic Records executive to allow them to open for Oasis in 1996, where they performed an encore, which is almost unheard of for any opening act. This paved the way for a showcase performance at the Viper Room in West Hollywood, where Rhone signed the band to Elektra/Asylum, allowing Jenkins to produce the record with assistance from Eric Valentine. With iconic, chart-topping single “Semi-Charmed Life” and four other singles (“Losing a Whole Year,” “Graduate,” “Jumper,” and “How’s It Going to Be”), Third Eye Blind went six times platinum and remained in the Billboard Top 200 for over a year, making it one of the most popular rock albums of the late ‘90s.
As a song that is still played on radio, film and television, “Semi-Charmed Life” is the clearest example of Third Eye Blind’s success in intertwining a dark subject with a lighthearted hook. Jenkins’ tale of a couple’s use of crystal meth was his modern take on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” complete with his own version of those memorable doo doo doo doo’s. Jenkins explained, “The sound was about decay. The sweetness of wanting something else that’s delivered to you in this package, where it has this seeming warmth that never yields. Wanting something else is all there is… the whole state of being is longing.” That’s a pretty dark subject for a song that is mostly heard during drunken sing-alongs late at night at the local bar.
The sinister subjects of Third Eye Blind became signature to their lyrics, with a song like “Jumper” becoming an anti-suicide PSA that is still very much relevant, but highly ambitious production techniques are what pulled it together to give Third Eye Blind their signature sound. From laser sounds, to double-tracked bass, to using guitar feedback in intricate ways, Third Eye Blind pulled out every stop to create the most epic rock album that they could. Perhaps most significant to their eponymous debut was the use of dynamics. This is most notable on “Losing a Whole Year” and “Narcolepsy,” which are probably not coincidentally the two songs Cadogan wrote the lyrics for. Opening track “Losing a Whole Year” starts off with a quiet, haunting guitar riff, which explodes from zero to 100 and leads to Jenkins’ first words, “I remember you and me used to spend the whole goddamn day in bed.” The next track takes the dynamic techniques even further, as Jenkins sings a verse and a chorus before the track quickly elevates, climactically declaring, “I can feel this narcolepsy slide/ Into another nightmare.” If you’re not listening close enough, you’ll think that the album ends with this same line. There’s a brief pause, feeling like the narrator finally fell asleep, followed by a jolting guitar outro, as if the narrator’s own awareness awoke him again.
The juxtaposition of sadness and upbeat sounds had been done before, and would certainly be done again, but in the late ‘90s, Third Eye Blind was one of a kind. “I think you could put it out now and it would sell,” Jenkins told Rolling Stone about the album that made his career. “You could put it on XMU or Alt Nation and it would sound as dark and as vital. I think that pain of not fitting into the world I was in and not feeling comfortable meant that in the long run, the songs aren’t dated by trends and genres that were happening around me.”
It is this quote that brings to light another Third Eye Blind single and live crowd favorite, “Graduate.” Over driving guitars and crashing cymbals, Jenkins asks, “Will the song live on after we do?” The track is about Third Eye Blind’s struggles as they developed their debut, having to impress record executives and potential agents, but they unintentionally consider the nostalgia that this song might bring someday. Twenty years later, it looks like the members of Third Eye Blind have their answer.