Welcome, one and all, to #3ebThursdays*, a hostile takeover of 1%J’s now-apparently-defunct #TBT series. Each Thursday of July, we will travel down memory lane together to look back at one album by ’90s alt-rock giants Third Eye Blind. We will hopefully come away with what ends up being perhaps the most in-depth, critically serious look at the oeuvre of an oft-maligned band, and perhaps a thesis on the nature of community as put forth by 3eb mastermind Stephan Jenkins. This week we turn to their not very good fourth and final (?) LP, “Ursa Major.” PT. 1 – “THIRD EYE BLIND.” PT. 2 – “BLUE.” PT. 3 – “OUT OF THE VEIN.”
Three years after the release of Out Of The Vein, Third Eye Blind released their one and only greatest hits collection, called A Collection. The most notable thing about A Collection is that the liner notes credit Kevin Cadogan’s guitar work on the first two records to Tony Fredianelli. The bio in the booklet makes no mention of Cadogan, and includes the line, “As always, the band profited from the musical interplay between Tony Fredianelli, Stephan Jenkins, Arion Salazar and Brad Hargreaves.” Critic Jude Gold famously said of this line, “It’s like saying Guns ’n Roses’ music always profited from the interplay between Axl Rose and guitarist Bucket Head.” On top of this being hilarious, the G’nR reference is spot-on.
What else went on in the six years between OOTV and Ursa Major? Not a whole lot. Elektra having dissolved, and 3eb being dropped from the larger Warner Group for no apparent reason, Jenkins started his own label, called Mega Collider. In 2007, Jenkins and Eric Godtland, the band’s former manager who helped in the ousting of Cadogan, sued each other. In 2008 they released a a digital EP that is the definition of “stop-gap.” Including two exclusive songs and a live version of a song to appear on Ursa, Red Star, is nothing if not non-essential. “Non-Dairy Creamer” makes a group chant out of the line “young gay Republicans,” while “Red Star” is some sort of weird Cold War love parable. The one notable thing about Red Star is that it was the last 3eb release to feature Arion Salazar on bass, before he quit in a shockingly undramatic fashion.
Then, finally, in 2009, fans got the album they’d been waiting for, or more likely forgetting about, for six years. Originally naming it The Hideous Strength after a C.S. Lewis book, they ended up going with Ursa Major because, said Jenkins, “We’ve been hibernating and now we’ve awakened and we are hungry for spring and we want to feed and we want to thrive.” What is this bullshit? Hibernating? You’ve been embroiled in lawsuits, asshat. You are not a bear, you’re a dick. (1)
I confess that I never listened to Ursa Major before starting this project. I was afraid. There was no way it could be good. Only two of the band’s original members remained. They’d come back years after I figured they’d fallen apart. Nothing of quality could come of this.
As it turns out, I was mostly right, but Ursa Major could be worse. “Can You Take Me” is a pretty classic 3eb track, opening with some chugging guitars, climaxing with a big chorus. The first lines are “All I want right now is the time / Where we slept on the floor / You said “Right here right now / Is all that we’re living for,” echoing nostalgic sentiments dating back to “Semi-Charmed Life.” The incongruous bridge doesn’t do much for the song, but then we get back into that catchy chorus, before Stephan drops into an obligatory rapped section that concludes with, “And the world is for the meek / And this mouse is gonna squeak / I am dying to be freaked.” As I said, it could be worse.
“Don’t Believe A Word” was the album’s first single (2: One can only assume the title is a Thin Lizzy reference.). It opens with some weird squawking guitars, then an epically metal three chord progression. The verses get kind of weird and mincing, with Stephan spouting little triumphant platitudes like, “I wanna bust out, I’ve not been defeated.” Verse one ends with Stephan straight shouting “Give me back my photos, will you? / You fucking whore, I’ll KILL you!” This line oddly presages the weirdly blink-182-esque chorus, with a call-and-response of “Don’t believe it!” over some pop-punk chords. In the middle of it all, Stephan drops the expected reference to getting high and no one is surprised. Verse two is unremarkable, though surprisingly political. “Rap stars brag about shooting each other? / What ever happened to ‘Brother, brother‘?” (Yes, that’s sung as a Marvin Gaye imitation.) Stephan goes in for politics a few more times on this record, and never any more successfully. All that said, the endlessly repeated chorus is actually real catchy, the screams in the middle get Stephan nicely back to his hair-metal roots, and the comprised-of-stills video for the song is pretty fun.
The album’s second single, “Bonfire,” was co-written by Salazar, and features him on bass. (Like, literally, it says “Bonfire feat. Arion Salazar.” Fucked up shit.) The song is mediocre figer-picking hippy shit, with a video featuring enough half-clothed teen girls swarming the 45-year-old Jenkins to make you very uncomfortable. The “Whooooaaaaooahooooohs” are decently catchy, though, and Stephen’s reference to his “duct-tape vest / It’s a party vest” is amusing enough to make up for the rest of the track. Stephan seems generally upset over yet another breakup, saying bitterly “Some girls break you down / Just to see you come undone.” “Bonfire” ends with a repetition of, “Did you get what you wanted?” No. I didn’t. And your whistling doesn’t make up for it.
“Sharp Knife” is a breakup ballad that actually has Stephan exhibiting more vulnerability than usual. Singing “Someone I swore I’d never be / Who trades his dreams for security,” Stephan finds himself abandoning the life he always thought he’d wanted for something blander, lamer. It’s almost like he’s describing Third Eye Blind in 2009. The chorus is actually pretty good on this one, with Stephan wishing he had a “sharp knife soul” that could actually cut its way through the hard times. The weird little breakdowns where he repeats “A shiv!” over and over are kind of dumb, then Fredianelli almost pulls a Cadogan and we’re back to okay. But then the song ends with a crunchy chord that harkens back to “London” and reminds us of what used to be.
“No chance I could be her boyfriend / I’m trying to flip butch girls again.” This is how “One In Ten” opens. Some other clunkers from this song: “You’re a big girl, if you wanna get it on you will / And if you don’t, you won’t.” “You could knit baby sweaters / We could watch a flat screen TV.” “And I know you were born this way / But I thought we could give it a try.” This song is literally about trying to convince a bisexual who’s in love with a woman to be with him. It might be Stephan’s dumbest moment, and it’s the beginning of this album’s sharp decline.
“About To Break” is the third slow, dull track in a row. Stephan says “Cause if there’s one thing that I can’t stand / It’s standing next to my fellow man,” trying hard to debunk everything I’ve tried to say about him so far. He references “the social worker at the needle exchange” and “the lesbians at the bakery.” He shouts out Doctors Without Borders, and literally says “For Africa, where life is cheap.” Stephan needs to shut up. Fredianelli’s sick metal moments on this track feel forced and don’t even begin to redeem it.
“Summer Town” opens with a quasi-rap: “This dumb jam didn’t mean a thing / Ecstasy, rave is king.” Then after like three verses and choruses, the song seems to drop out, before a full rap section about fake cocaine and fanny packs. The word “bungalow” is used more than once. A girl was reading “Nabokov, Miller and Tess.” (“Tess”? As in “of the D’Urbervilles” Or am I missing something?) Then the song just ends cold, after five minutes of absolute shit.
You thought that was the worst, though, right? That was as bad as this would get? Oh, but we haven’t gotten to “Why Can’t You Be” yet! Here’s a comprehensive list of the things Stephan and his girl wish that the other could be like: my Waterpik shower massager, when I was thirteen, an art-house foreign movie, a little more mystery, the part of me that’s missing, an outsourced government contract, the chicks out on the road, someone looking deeper into me, J.D. Salinger, a little more at ease, a hand-rolled cigarette, a candle I snuff. The only thing I learned from this song is that sometimes, a blow job’s just not enough. The song is so sterile that its silly attempts at sexy complaints just come off as false.
“Water Landing” opens with a weird computerized ticking, which is a new move for 3eb. Tragically, the song just continues the slog that the past four have already established far too well. Bad similes abound, and the song goes nowhere. The chorus wants to be big, but is nothing next to the high points of the first three records. And there’s yet more rapping. The Blue Singers come in for one of Stephan’s least profound bits of profundity yet: “If it’s a water landing / Then its a water landing.” Gee, thanks, dude. The plane crash of this song can’t come soon enough.
“Dao Of St. Paul” may have a nonsensical title, but it has more going for it than most of Ursa Major: an interesting melody, some solid guitar playing, and Stephan seems maybe somewhat remorseful. “If only you knew how empty I feel / But maybe then you’re lonely, too / And it’s tearing through you like a punctured wound / Maybe no one knows what to do.” At least he’s wallowing in pity for someone else on top of for himself. The “nah nah nah” chorus is stupid, but at least it’s fun. And then the guitar solo that rips through the middle of the song is better than most anything that we’ve gotten so far on this record. Stephan seems concerned again about time, as he should be at his age. But he also wants to “rejoice evermore.” “St. Paul” is so much less bitter than the rest of this album that it’s hard not to like it. And the choral bit that takes the song out for it’s last minute is legitimately pretty. So, cheers.
“Monotov’s Private Opera” (referencing a guy of a totally different name) drops us back into the simile-laden plodding of this record’s midsection. References to good times in Moscow pepper this song’s ode to some girl who seems to be the only one. Stephan’s lyrics are more and more middlebrow as he gets older. “Maybe I’m like my father,” he drops in the middle of this track, and no one cares. The chorus comes back in again, but they have nothing interesting to say.
The minute-and-a-half instrumental “Carnival Barker” closes out the album in complete superfluity. And then we’re done. You may have noticed that there’s not a single moment on Ursa Major that hints at the communitarian vibe we’ve been tracing throughout Jenkins’ oeuvre. Maybe there was nothing there in the first place, but it seems to me that as he’s gotten older, he’s gotten colder as well. Having two of your bandmates quit on you must not make you feel too interested in a group mentality. What’s odd is that Out Of The Vein actually had the most direct references to a communal spirit on it of any of the four records, and it’s hard to tell where that went in the six year gap between records. But it’s definitely gone, and what we’re left with is a few decent songs on the most boring album of this band’s slow decline. (4)
Tony Fredianelli was fired from the band in 2010. He sued Jenkins, naturally, for songwriting credits and royalties, and was awarded $438,000 in 2013. Also in 2010, former 3eb attorney Thomas Mandelbaum and Jenkins sued each other. Somewhere in the five years since Ursa Major, Salazar and Cadogan joined up as XEB and started performing Cadogan-era songs. Jenkins recently announced that the forthcoming fifth album, the first single of which should be out this summer, would be the last LP Third Eye Blind ever release. They will continue to release music, but it seems that the several year process of making each of these past three albums has taken it’s toll, which is understandable, given that Jenkins is turning 50 in September.
(1) Ursa Major debuted at #3 on the charts, making it the highest charting album of 3eb’s career. This says significantly more about the state of record sales in 2009 than it does about Third Eye Blind.
(3) Tracks 1-4 are all cowritten by Fredianelli, while the rest of the album is almost entirely Jenkins alone. You’d think by this point he would have learned to stop doing that.
(4) This is saying something, as it’s also the shortest by ten whole minutes.