2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.
There’s a music meme that makes the rounds every now and then, and I always laugh when I see it — mostly as I’m a huge fan of the band mentioned. Laid over the image of an obviously frustrated young boy, lines of distorted text read: “bro what the FUCK are cocteau twins saying.”
Cocteau Twins were an influential Scottish group active through the 1980s and 1990s, known for a soaring, resplendent sound that came to define the genre of “dream pop.” Lead singer Elizabeth Fraser brought the compositions together with her ethereal vocals, inimitable not only in tone but language as well: Although the listener picks up snatches of English, Fraser’s lyrics favored emotive sound instead of meaning — she basically made up words to fit the melody.
But the Cocteau Twins’ verbal flights of fancy are famously enigmatic, a key element of their appeal. It was only recently that I began to realize another band is nearly as difficult to parse, despite producing some of the best 1990s rock choruses to sing along with. I’m talking about Third Eye Blind, and the lyrics of frontman Stephan Jenkins, specifically on their multi-platinum, self-titled debut album, which came out in 1997 and soon made them a radio staple of the era.
The poppy post-grunge band happened to arrive on the scene around the time I was beginning to buy CDs. For my birthday that year, I received the first two albums in my collection: the Mission: Impossible soundtrack and “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Bad Hair Day. Likewise, I recall my introduction to Third Eye Blind, which came in a jewel case with blurry, bright red cover art of a woman who seems to be laughing, part of her face obscured by a hand. My friend Ryan had bought it on a trip to the mall one day (along with Green Day’s Dookie), and when we got back to his house, we settled down on his bedroom floor to listen to it all the way through on his boombox. I still find it funny that we had the patience and focus to give it our complete attention.
I’d heard lots of hip-hop, and lots of what we called “alternative” rock, but Jenkins’ delivery landed somewhere in the perplexing middle of those styles. In a 2013 interview about hating the lead single, “Semi-Charmed Life” — and detesting Jenkins personally — musician John Vanderslice calls it “white-boy rap” and “frat-boy rapping.” Even if you enjoy the tunes, it’s hard to refute that assessment: Jenkins has a way of jamming or slurring his words together, twisting their pronunciation to suit his unusual rhythms, and ends up saying way more than the average rock star in each verse.
That afternoon on Ryan’s floor, we were spellbound at this torrent of lyrics, completely at a loss as to what they meant to communicate. It’s not like we had no experience with adult content; we knew Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” was about romantic betrayal, Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” was about big butts and Sublime’s “April 29, 1992” was about riots and looting in Los Angeles. Presumably Jenkins, too, was singing about “grown-up” stuff that would intrigue a pair of seventh-graders — but we couldn’t be sure.
In the 1940s, the psychiatrist Milton Erickson described what he called the “confusion technique,” which he considered a valuable mechanism for inducing deep hypnosis. “In essence,” he wrote, “it is no more than a presentation of a whole series of individually differing, contradictory suggestions, apparently all at variance with each other, differently directed, and requiring a constant shift in orientation by the subject.” The patient concentrates on this stream of playful nonsense speech, trying harder and harder to grasp what they’re being told, until they enter a trance-like state.
I strongly doubt Jenkins consciously employed this method to write “Jumper” or “Graduate,” but he does achieve a related effect: We can all belt out the titular lines and hooks, and then, at some point, your ear loses the thread, and you zone out waiting for the familiar part to recur. If you’ve ever seen someone attempt Third Eye Blind at karaoke, you’ve witnessed the moment of disbelief when the performer suddenly understands that though they’ve heard the song a million times, its content remains a mystery, its cadence baffling. The instrumental rolls on without the cryptic patter. Really, it’s Jenkins or nothing.
Of course, we could always look up what he’s saying, study the music videos to figure it out or read some general analysis of dark themes explored in Third Eye Blind — I am reliably informed that these include suicide, breakups, crystal meth addiction and even sexual abuse, none of which filtered through the catchy arrangements to make an impression on 12-year-old me. And truth be told, barely any of that stuff registers 25 years later. The album retains a kind of bubble-gum infectiousness that overrides the evident weight (or self-importance) of its narratives. I don’t process the words because, in a sense, they don’t count — much as Liz Fraser’s trilling phrases electrify the Cocteau Twins’ songs without adhering to any conventional grammar.
True, it’s not a deliberate choice on Jenkins’ part, and I suspect he’d be annoyed to have his writing discarded this way. But I’m also certain that the fans who keep returning to the material are primarily drawn to the texture, melodic punch and sheer adrenaline, not poetry.
Even so, what’s wrong with that? The songs live on, and they hit the right buttons to this day. Not many achieve that place in culture. My partner Maddie likes to play Third Eye Blind in the car, and on a drive a few weeks ago, I mentioned that nobody can recite the lyrics to any of it. She disagreed, arguing that she could sing along with the entirety of “Losing a Whole Year.” We put it on, and she did okay… for the first 30 seconds. After that familiar couplet, “I remember you and me used to spend / The whole goddamned day in bed,” she went right off the rails, baffled by the next mumbly Jenkins-ism.
I bet you’ve never picked the line apart yourself: “Hiding in your room we’d lay like dogs / And the phone would ring like a joke that’s left unsaid,” according to the internet, and I’ll take a stranger’s word for it, because what choice do I have?
“Nope, no idea!” Maddie said, shrugging whenever a new section of the song threw her for a loop, delighted to find it resisted her expectations. Maybe that’s the staying power of Jenkins’ art — for all your connection to it, his voice zigzags in a way you cannot memorize, and so it will always surprise you one way or another.
That alone is reason enough to leave him on repeat.