These days, San Francisco is a good place to look for ghosts. Some might be hiding in the fog that rolls across the Sunset in the morning; others in the storefronts making way for condos in the soon-to-be-barely-recognizable Mission. If all else fails, head straight for the skull of longtime resident Stephan Jenkins, whose latest output as the frontman and ringleader of Third Eye Blind feels as much like an exorcism as it does an album.
It’s safe to say that Dopamine, the band’s fifth studio album and first since 2009’s Ursa Major, will be the last we see from Third Eye Blind in a while — perhaps ever, if Jenkins keeps his word. A detail like this seems worth mentioning, if only because so much of Third Eye Blind’s appeal lies in its ability to trigger intense feelings of nostalgia. These feelings aren’t tied to a particular era in the band’s career; it’s been like this since the beginning, when “Semi-Charmed Life” wished it could get “back there” and “How’s It Going To Be” dwelled on a time last fall when lightning was always about to strike. For Jenkins, the perfect life seems always to be receding into the past, and one wonders how a songwriter like this might approach a late-career album released in the same year he waves goodbye to his 40s.
The answer is more complicated than Dopamine’s shiny, melodic accessibility would suggest. Backed by an almost entirely new cast (longtime drummer Brad Hargreaves is the only other holdout from Ursa Major), Jenkins captures glimmers of the magic that once came so easily to him. Opening track and lead single “Everything Is Easy” shows that he still knows his way around a hook. Though it’s powered by a conventional dance beat and isn’t being subtle with any of its other tricks, the song’s chorus is vintage Third Eye Blind, both enthralling and kind of sad. “I’m just haunted by you constantly,” Jenkins sings, and it’s only the first of many times his ghosts come to the forefront. “I’m always a ghost,” he screams on “Shipboard Cook”, a song whose extended maritime metaphor flirts with disaster but never quite gets in the way of the band’s driving energy. These early tracks contain all the stuff Jenkins excels at; hell, there’s even a kind of charm to cringe-worthy lines like, “Go ahead, take my heart up/ Roll it up like a joint.”
Unfortunately, that charm wears off as the album drifts away from wistful pop rock and Jenkins visits some of his other, less enthralling ghosts. The semi-charmed songwriter has proven over the years to be a talented lyricist, which is why it’s frustrating to see him resort to threadbare love-as-drug-addiction conceits (“Dopamine”) and old-man diatribes against kids and their cell phones (“All the Souls”). He admitted to a bout of writer’s block back in 2012, and songs like these are evidence that he hasn’t quite snapped out of it yet. If this ranks among the best stuff you can come up with in six years’ time, well, you’re either a professional procrastinator or you’ve got another serious problem.
The most egregious offender (and the band’s most intolerable song since “Non-Dairy Creamer”) is “Rites of Passage”. Not enough terrible things can be said about this song, whether you’re talking about the Jamaican dancehall opening, the whistled bridge, or the outrageous appropriation of, like, five different David Bowie lyrics (Ziggy Stardust also makes a cameo on penultimate track “Exiles”, as if to add insult to injury). The track is such a flaming turd that it nearly sinks the album entirely. At the very least, it sabotages the emotional gravity of “Back to Zero”, another slight but pretty song about the urge to turn back the clock on one’s mistakes. The irony of placing this after the album’s own biggest mistake is, in a word, rich.
Sequencing remains an issue on the latter half of Dopamine, which is sprinkled with a few decent songs (“Something In You”, “All These Things”) and one great rumination on rock stardom that would have been the album’s closer in a more perfect world. Jenkins pours all of his nagging insecurities into “Get Me Out of Here”, resulting in a painfully honest self-portrait at age 50 that may just go down as Third Eye Blind’s swan song. It’s at moments like these, when Jenkins confronts his ghosts head-on, that we start to see what Dopamine might have been given a fastidious editor and a slightly more potent dose of inspiration.
Maybe Jenkins’ biggest ghosts are not ex-lovers or moments lost to time, but rather his band’s early successes. Third Eye Blind has been on a steady downward trajectory since the roaring high of their debut, but even if you consider this their lowest point, it’s still an average-quality pop record. Dopamine may not have its “Jumper” or its “Graduate”, and even if it did, we’ve moved past the cultural moment in which those songs resonated. Knowing how much he wants to own the past again, those early songs must feel at times like an albatross hanging from Jenkins’ neck. On the other hand, as he sings in “All These Things”, sometimes “the demons you’ve got to carry, carry you on.”
Essential Tracks: “Everything Is Easy”, “Shipboard Cook”, and “Get Me Out of Here”