Friday, 5 May 2017

Column: Jawbreaker's Albums Ranked From Least Good To Most Amazing (by Omar Ramlugon)


They said it would never happen.

For the entirety of the 21 years since Jawbreaker broke up, singer/guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach has continually either dodged, brushed off or outright dismissed any and all notions of the seminal punk trio reforming, even going so far as to once reply “Fuck no”[1] in answer to a tentative enquiry about it. But then again, the past year or so has been filled with things that would so-say “never happen”, like a wet sack of rancid pork rinds being elected to one of the most powerful offices in the world, or Britain deciding to leave the EU under the command of a Spitting Image puppet made sentient via blood magic.

So with these terrible, terrible things in mind, it’s nice to have something that would “never happen” be a wonderful surprise rather than a ringing indictment of humanity. The fates have aligned, and Jawbreaker are riding out of the mist in a glorious display, giving hope and happiness to us all. Or at least, to those who listen/listened to them. But anyway, their news of a reunion comes at a time when some good news is very much needed and rapturously appreciated, and what better way to celebrate than to read a gushing run down of their albums in order of quality? Apart from leave comments on everything Adam Pfahler posts on their Facebook page begging them to tour the UK – or is that just me? Anyway, here we go, in ascending order.

Disclaimer – this is all going to be my opinion, so feel free to disagree with the order. This is just how I see it.

4. Unfun (1990, Shredder Records, reissued in 2010 by Blackball Records)

It was always going to be this one at the bottom, given that the merits of the three to come are constantly debated by Jawbreaker fans. But that’s not to say that Unfun is in any way a substandard record – far from it. Unfun was a strikingly confident, rambunctious debut from a trio who would go on to become truly legendary in their own right. All the hallmarks of their later work can be found here, such as Schwarzenbach’s inimitable rasp – here a little higher pitched than on the records to follow – or the clever use of obscure samples from old radio shows and documentaries to generate a real sense of weight and mood. Even here, they were a cut above the pop-punk boom that was on its way.

Elsewhere, Chris Bauermeister and Adam Pfahler’s rhythm section bounce and dart in and out of Schwarzenbach’s razor sharp guitars, and on the whole the record put a satisfyingly impudent smirk on your face; whether it’s through the brilliant, distilled love song ‘Want’, the sharply observed anti-racism of ‘Seethruskin’, the furious ‘Driven’, or the outstanding instrumental that makes ‘Fine Day’ tear off into the sunset.

However, as good as the songs are, they don’t quite merge into a cohesive whole, or generate a churning sonic atmosphere as well as the later records, but given that it was their first LP, that’s completely understandable. Schwarzenbach’s lyrics, while sharp and witty, at times lapse into the wilfully abstract and as a result they don’t kick right in the gut or heart as well as they might. Furthermore, the instrumental outro in ‘Drone’ loses itself a little towards the end, but these slight missteps were gone by the time next one rolled around.

3. Bivouac (1992, Tupelo, Communion Records, reissued in 2013 by Blackball Records)

Coincidentally, this is the album that chronologically follows Unfun. A lot of people have claimed this as their favourite of the trio’s records, but although I would not for a second denigrate this album’s might and vigour – I would disagree.

Without a doubt, Bivouac is leaps and bounds above Unfun, which is saying something right from the off. Although the production is a little darker and less brightly in your face than Unfun, it somehow seems to fit the darker, sludgier riffing with which the band were experimenting at the time, which makes sense given Helmet’s Strap It On was released not two years earlier. Blake Schwarzenbach’s wry, snarky tone on Unfun was gone, replaced with a lower, husky bark, and the bright, edgy chime of his guitar had switched for a thick, midrange and bass-led snarl – I’m speculating here, but I think this must have been the record where he started playing Gibson Les Pauls.

If Unfun was the fun house party, Bivouac was the depressed, unwashed, hurting hangover. There are moments of levity, even edging close to pop – ‘Chesterfield King’ is one of the band’s most covered songs, and is a beautifully tender love song couched in guttural punk rock, and ‘Tour Song’ alternates between being blackly comedic and strikingly heartfelt, weaving tales of frustration with the travails of being a working band. Elsewhere, other songs show that Jawbreaker weren’t afraid to dip into literary sources for their material, as ‘Shield Your Eyes’ shows with its exploration of Plato’s allegory of the cave.

The instrumental flourishes touched on in Unfun are given thrilling voice across the whole album, as time and again the songs slow to almost a crawl, with little more than a menacing bassline and a funereal drumbeat to keep the mood before the whole thing almost literally explodes back into life, the guitars more like a dense volcanic rush than anything else. Lyrically, things are still abstract, never overly specific, but between the bleak images are moments of terrible sadness, such as the penultimate verse of ‘Like a Secret’, or the devastating line in ‘P.S New York Is Burning’; “And from a distance, it seems so unreal / Nothing left, nothing to feel / And if it hurt you, it hurt me too / I had to kill it to heal the wound’. This is Jawbreaker at their heaviest and most brooding, and its impact is absolutely crushing.

But herein lies why it’s third on my list; sometimes, it’s almost too much. The feedback-drenched title track is perhaps a perfect metaphor for the entire album; while brutally powerful and aching with a tangible loss and pain, it does lose itself a little amongst the roiling noise. Of course, if that’s your thing – and it is mine too, from time to time – then this will probably make it your favourite in their canon. But to my ear, while it’s a brilliant album and a landmark in punk, not everyone will be able to peel back its bristling outer layers and jump in.

2. Dear You (1995, DGC Records, reissued in 2004 by Blackball Records)

Dear You was, unfortunately, the album that destroyed Jawbreaker. Frustrated with the myopia and self-defeating idiocy of their scene and burned out from gruelling tours, the band made the decision to sign to DGC records for this album, a move which alienated many an overzealous fan. Adam Pfahler recounts how the thought process behind it was almost a “[…] whimsical decision to sign to a major […]“Ah, what the fuck, this could be interesting, we’ve never done this before. Maybe it’ll be fun, maybe it’ll be glamorous.” We knew […] we could afford to spend a little bit more time in the studio, which we had never done. So it was just sort of like, “Let’s do something different, let’s see where it takes us.””[2]

Pragmatic and sensible as that now sounds, at the time, many cried foul, and it even went so far as former fans turning up to shows only to sit down and face away from the stage when Jawbreaker started playing songs from Dear You, which was their loss. Slick, muscular production and high budget gloss aside, Dear You frequently delves into areas as dark and depressing as Bivouac, and as Schwarzenbach recounted in an interview around the time in Alternative Press, this was due to his personal pain and grief over the loss of close friends leaking into the songs; “[…] Rage and disappointment, those are the type of love songs I want to hear. I spend a lot of time alone and don't hang out with a lot of people. I write music to score my own life."”[3]

However, as bleak as this admission may sound, the lyrics are written with such a deft touch that they don’t ever sound maudlin or whiny. The abstractions of before are pretty much gone by this point, with Schwarzenbach’s captivating turn of phrase grounding all the songs in tangible metaphors and imagery. Elsewhere, the music was simply incredible, the extra time in the studio giving room for overdubs and layering which the band simply didn’t have the resources or the time for in their earlier work, and it really is a thing of beauty to have songs this good rendered in such fine detail.

For example, ‘Accident Prone’, one of the best songs Jawbreaker – or anyone, for that matter – ever wrote, ranges between its wry, quiet verses to a mammoth chorus, and an incredible, beautiful interlude where the band lock into an instrumental groove that only serves to heighten the emotions expressed across the track. The same can be said for ‘Jet Black’, with its darkly humorous sampling of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” giving some levity to what is otherwise a powerfully sad, slow song, while ‘Basilica’ erupts into a maelstrom of Bivouac-esque mania at its end.

But that’s not to say it’s all frowns and downturned gazes; ‘Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault’ is a hilarious and vivid portrait of a poseur house party, which clocks in at barely over two minutes, while ‘Fireman’’s chorus can’t help but raise a smile, or a gasp of horror if you think about it a little more; “If you could hear the dreams I’ve had my dear / They would give you nightmares for a week / But you’re not here and I can never sleep / Come home so I can be a creep.” I also would be remiss to mention the excellent ‘Sluttering (May 4th)’, which is perhaps one of the most brutal kiss-offs ever committed to record, with its vicious repetition of “If you hear this song a hundred times it still won’t be enough.”

Truthfully, it was very tough to put Dear You second. It’s pretty much perfect in so many ways, and there’s not a single song on it I don’t love. But then again, the same can be said of the champion in this competition.

1. 24 Hour Revenge Therapy (1994, Tupelo, Communion Records, reissued by Blackball Records in 2014)

24 Hour Revenge Therapy is the sound of Jawbreaker in their prime. Neither searching for a sound as much as the preceding albums while not quite as beaten down as they may have been on Dear You, it marks a centre point of all of their best qualities; lyrically literate, while being focused and direct, musically tough without disappearing down instrumental rabbit holes, and finding a middle ground between the polished production of Dear You and the churning grit of Bivouac, thanks in no small part to the uncredited production of Steve Albini.

Blake Schwarzenbach’s writing had progressed in an entirely different direction since Bivouac; while literary allusions cropped up from time to time – the Kerouac sample in ‘Condition Oakland’ being the most prominent – here he simply writes both specific and yet curiously tales of being twentysomething and struggling to get by, whether that be in romance, in music, or just to get to your next beer. It’s a territory that’s been mined since the beginning of popular music, but his concise, economical turn of phrase manages to make the lyrics hit as hard as the subject matter which it depicts, whether it’s the exploration of unrealised dreams on ‘The Boat Dreams From The Hill’, the sharply humorous excoriation of punk’s rules and the scene in ‘Indictment’ and ‘Boxcar’, or a vivid depiction of his vocal surgery in ‘Outpatient’.

However, it’s not to say that there aren’t sadder moments on the record - ‘Condition Oakland’ has one of the most poignant explorations of depression in a single chorus ever penned; “This is my condition / Naked and hysterical, reaching to grab a hand that I just slapped back at / This is my condition / Desperate, alone, without an excuse, tried to explain – Christ, what’s the use?” It leads into ‘Ache’, which manages to end on a relatively optimistic, even romantic note while in the same breath encapsulating the slow unravelling of closely-knit friendship groups; “Just keep reinventing myself, it’s move or die / These days the people I love are spread so far apart.”

With all my blathering about the lyrics, it’s easy to forget about the brilliant music accompanying the whole shebang; hooky but gritty, precise but not anodyne, it fits the pictures painted by the lyrics in a symbiotic fashion. ‘Ache’’s measured, slow crawl matches the reflective tone of the music; ‘West Bay Invitational’’s sense of uncertainty and explosions of life is redolent of that riotous house party which it describes. ‘Jinx Removing’ is about as perfect a punk rock love song as you’ll find, while ‘Do You Still Hate Me?’ tears and rips through its sub three minute length with furious lead guitar lines while Schwarzenbach offers a tentative vocal olive branch. The heart-breaking ‘Ashtray Monument’ depicts a marriage in freefall through the medium of ferocious power chord riffs, with Schwarzenbach summing up the whole miserable affair in the pithy chorus; “After all, it’s not that bad / I still have pictures, I look back / At all the things that we once did / You said ‘I love you’, I guess you did.”

I could write pages on this one album and still have it feel incomplete. 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is essential listening for anyone who even dabbles with the idea of punk rock, or even just guitar music in general. In no uncertain terms it is a masterpiece, as brutally beautiful as anything Jawbreaker ever put out. It quite literally gets better with age, as I find myself appreciating it even more at 25 than I could at 18, given that now I’ve experienced at least some of the things writ large in its runtime. It’s as much a tearful hug as it is a wry smile and with any luck its relevance will continue to resonate with generation after generation.

Buy this album, right now.

[1] https://vimeo.com/22421151

[2] http://pitchfork.com/features/article/10061-the-definitive-oral-history-of-jawbreakers-24-hour-revenge-therapy/

[3] http://web.archive.org/web/20111104082903/http://loosecharm.org:80/inter/altpress.html

This column was written by Omar Ramlugon.