Third Eye Blind is a band both immortal and scorned. Sure, they have scored more lasting, mainstream hits than any fledgling band today can even dream of, but their short window of success has forever confined them to the title of “ ’90s band.” You can almost imagine the deal with the devil that lead singer Stephan Jenkins made when he was unsigned in San Francisco: “Yeah, I’ll make you sextuple platinum, but you’ll end up as a consistent Justin Timberlake punchline.”
“The kid from ‘The Mickey Mouse Club?’ Seriously? Ah, fuck it, dude. Make me famous.”
And so Third Eye Blind still ends up confused with Semisonic, despite decidedly not being one-hit wonders. I’ll grant you that it’s not the greatest tragedy of our time, but still, Third Eye Blind’s self-titled debut is a first-class overlooked album, and probably the best work to come out of the ’90s’ mostly forgettable “bubble grunge” phase. In the public eye, the hits shine so bright that people are blinded to the other songs, but 20 years later, Third Eye Blind remains a satisfying listen front to back.
The opening two tracks, “Losing a Whole Year” and “Narcolepsy,” aren’t the band’s most recognizable songs, but they provide a strong introduction to its songwriting abilities and style. “Losing a Whole Year” announces itself in attention-grabbing fashion, with wall-smashing power chords and a shouted refrain from Stephan Jenkins. Jenkins isn’t quite a rapper, but the verses here certainly bare some hip-hop influence — call it talk-singing with swagger.
“Narcolepsy,” meanwhile, showcases a kind of radio-friendly pop rock that has fallen out of favor in the two decades since its release. Quietly strummed guitars and soft vocals eventually lead into a hard-charging yet inoffensive chorus. Third Eye Blind’s success likely stemmed in part from its ability to be both palatable to older fans of soft rock and yet retain the slightest of edges for the alternative crowd.
And after these first two songs, we get the stretch that made Third Eye Blind stars. “Semi-Charmed Life,” the record’s lead single and biggest hit, leads it off. It’s the boppiest song ever written about crystal meth, with a catchy little sing-along hook and quickly rapped verses that are still extremely easy to keep up with. “Semi-Charmed” remains, for good reason, the best-known and most-enjoyed Third Eye Blind song — it’s a crowd pleaser that still crosses genres in an innovative way and features some ambitious lyrical content hidden under its sweet sound.
“Jumper,” however, hasn’t aged quite as well. It’s a plodding acoustic song that never goes anywhere exciting. Its lyrical subject (a suicidal gay friend, according to Jenkins) has potential, but the words seem to purposely avoid any kind of specificity in favor of clichés. That said, nobody has forgotten the chorus in two decades, so it must be doing something right.
In the middle of this stretch one finds the somewhat lesser-known “Graduate,” which was only a minor hit back in its day. However, its three minutes feature the most focused burst of energy on the whole album, and it’s the only heavy, fast track without any sort of quieter bridge. “Graduate” is the closest Third Eye Blind ever came to writing something Blink-182 would.
And we close out this incredible run of tracks with “How’s It Going to Be.” Certainly the least immediate of the album’s hits, “How’s It Going to Be” might nevertheless be the most satisfying; it’s a perfect change of pace that builds to an unforgettable climax. When Jenkins gets to his barely comprehensible screaming at the end, it truly feels cathartic and earned. I’m not sure you can be more dynamic in a four-minute pop song.
I don’t necessarily blame anyone who turns off the record after “How’s It Going to Be.” Late ’90s records are notorious for their bloated runtimes, and Third Eye Blind is no exception, as the album’s second half is mostly taken up by filler tracks, inferior retreads of first-half songs and only a few memorable moments. Keep the breeziness of “Burning Man” and the well-crafted build of “Motorcycle Drive By,” and you can cut most of the rest.
That said, anyone giving this album another listen after some time away owes it to themselves to revisit “The Background.” Buried near the end of the album’s hour, it takes the romantic melancholy inherent in most of the record’s lyrics and gives it to the melody, too. We finally get some clear details from Jenkins in this break-up song (“I walk Haight Street to the store / And they say where's that crazy girl / You don't get drunk on red wine and fight no more”). There’s no distance here, no catchy “do do do”s to undersell a song about drugs. Jenkins isn’t an incredible singer, but on “The Background” he draws the listener into his heartbreak, fully immersing you into his world before tossing out a rewarding, invigorating heavy guitar solo.
I’ve been writing this piece taking it for granted that Third Eye Blind is no longer famous, but technically, that’s not exactly true. Sure, most people would be hard-pressed to name a song of theirs that has come out this millennium, but the band recently announced a 20th anniversary tour, set for the summer, that most currently buzzed-about bands could only dream of. While more presently relevant bands like Japandroids or The Hotelier play clubs or theaters (if they’re lucky), Third Eye Blind is still performing in amphitheaters with capacities in the high four figures, as the great songs of their past continue to be sung out by thousands every night.
So, more accurately, Third Eye Blind is a band scorned by charts and critics, but not fans. In the mainstream, they may be jokingly remembered, but within their own circle of admirers they remain stars — thanks mostly to this one twenty-year-old debut album. As their original fan base gets older and younger listeners hear them for the first time, this record seems to grow more and more in esteem. Frankly, I find their success inspiring: Write a few great, beloved songs, keep working, and you can live forever. No soul-selling required.