The Outsider Genius of Third Eye Blind

Third Eye Blind were huge, but they were never credited with being exactly “important.” Sales of the band’s self-titled 1997 debut might have put them in the same tax bracket as Green Day and Nirvana, but unlike those twin towers of ‘90s alt-rock, Third Eye Blind were profoundly uncool. For all their bluster about being rejects and creeps, Billie Joe Armstrong and Kurt Cobain emerged from punk microcosms in which they were already stars, and they rode into popular consciousness as kings of an undiscovered country that the rest of the world would soon try to invade. The landscape shifted, the culture morphed. By contrast, the band Stephan Jenkins built had to live and die by songcraft alone, and in a way that has made their songs all the more enduring.

Kids wanted to be Kurt and Billie Joe. No one ever wanted to be Stephan Jenkins; he could never quite ingratiate himself with a scene of ostensible outcasts. Teenagers couldn’t chase Third Eye Blind’s sound backward into a hip demimonde and attendant identity that said something about the world and a kid’s place in it. The band’s breakthrough song, “Semi-Charmed Life,” was seemingly designed to keep “Two Princes” and “One Week” company in future documentaries about Beanie Babies, Super Soakers, and other ‘90s trends. It opened onto nothing more that its own fleeting moment. Just like the album it came from opened only into the worlds contained in its songs. There was no shifting, no morphing.

So Third Eye Blind came from nowhere. And they came bearing beautiful music that has aged remarkably well, unburdened as it is by epoch-making cultural significance. The songs have remained pure and vital, and if time has done anything to them, it has burnished them into reflective surfaces that contain and clarify a brief span of pop history.

“How’s It Going to Be” is a standout from a debut album fit to burst with hits and should-have-been-hits, one of the great ballads of the ‘90s, a gloriously simple heartbreaker that builds a bridge between Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train” and Dashboard Confessional’s “Screaming Infidelities.” It was a blurry Polaroid snapshot of music’s barely noticeable pivot from one kind of unhip earnestness to another, and this in-betweenness has sustained the song through time. It can float in that indeterminate realm forever, attracted by the weakest gravitational force to the songs surrounding it, but mostly standing beautiful and alone, waiting for the future to find it again and again.

Third Eye Blind’s discography teems with three-minute secret histories like this one. Jenkins’ hyperactive style—the dude will try just about anything to build an earworm—has a way of erasing the traces of anyone but Jenkins himself. But in the same way an old commercial tells us more about the past than whatever program it once interrupted, Third Eye Blind’s best songs remain shiny, hermetic wonders that were whispering to us about the future of guitar-based pop all along.

A sizeable chunk of Third Eye Blind predicts Red Hot Chili Peppers’ post-horndog phase as semi-sensitive dudes who worked out how to write pop songs. Blue highlight “Anything” turned emo-inflected pop-punk into humongous arena rock two years before Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American pulled the same trick. And One Direction might have perfected a blend of Coldplay’s grandiosity and Kelly Clarkson’s epic flights, but Third Eye Blind beat them to the idea on “Faster,” one of the few bright spots on 2003’s Out of the Vein.

Much of the band’s work since 2009 has been unremarkable, and at this point Third Eye Blind mostly just sound like fans of Third Eye Blind. And maybe that’s fine. They finally found their scene: Turns out they were it all along.