I have three tattoos. There’s a treeish thing on my calf that doesn’t really bother me, and another on my back so unmentionably bad it shall remain undescribed in any public forum as long as I draw breath. My favorite sits on my wrist: a cross made of four F’s — all dark lines, symmetry, and space. It’s the only one I have yet to regret. It is, of course, the Jawbreaker logo.
Jawbreaker have always been that kind of band. The kind of band whose lyrics you pore over, learn by heart, make your own. The kind of band you fall in love with slowly, only to watch that love morph into obsession, then comfortable familiarity over the years. The kind of band you get so nerdy about you almost feel embarrassed to admit it, until you finally break down and get a tattoo of their logo on your wrist/neck/chest/armpit (I’ve seen ‘em all, and plenty more). To quote one of the later songs, where singer/guitarist/bookish-cult-hero Blake Schwarzenbach sings about his awkward love of Zeppelin: “I felt ashamed. I knew every drum fill.” They’re that kind of band.
Yet for a band so beloved after the fact — Jawbreaker fell to pieces back in 1996 — it’s almost funny to think how hated they were by their most devoted fans when they were still around. Funny like a funeral, I suppose. After a promising start with debut album Unfun, they slowly built a following of fans who hung on Blake’s every lyric and lapped up the band’s particularly effective strain of proto-emo intensity. The songs were almost universally miserable, but the lyrics were so specific and quotably clever that they proved more validating than depressing, while the arrangements — especially the raging outros and extended textural bridges — were positively cathartic. Disenchantment had a sound and a solution all at once.
The second album, Bivouac, saw the band on one hand stretch further into complex arrangements and serious, surrealistic imagery, while a handful of songs took the opposite tack, telling simple stories of loss and love over stripped-down pop-punk. Both angles worked equally well, but in different ways, and the dichotomy of Jawbreaker (and their fans) was born. Shortly after Bivouac‘s release, Schwarzenbach underwent emergency throat surgery to remove a polyp that could have ended his career (or life, apparently). From here on those trademark ragged vocals were always a bit cleaner and more controlled — which would help the band move into poppier waters.
24 Hour Revenge Therapy took the big ideas of Bivouac and trimmed the fat, banging out a batch of songs that paired Blake’s best lyrics with pitch-perfect engineering via Steve Albini, here credited as “Fluss.” Despite the general consensus that Jawbreaker were hitting their peak, tensions within the band were high. Blake had made public statements to the effect of “we’ll never sign to a major” and the punk rock peanut gallery was already voicing disdain since the band had been picked to open for — shudder — Nirvana. Being the quintessential cult-favorite punk band, Jawbreaker were too fucking good to be scooped up by the corporate machine and shared with the Green Day-loving masses, right?
Naturally, when Jawbreaker did sign to Geffen as an ill-advised, last-ditch effort to save the band, everything hit the fan. Upon the release of the colossal, expensive, and expensive-sounding Dear You, the super-fans left en masse. Turns out the rounded-corner production and soft/smooth vocals from Blake didn’t work that well for the public at large, either. Hardly any records sold — the band fell apart with only the scraps of their dignity and a large pile of money. It could have ended better, and it should have, considering the brilliance that was laid to waste.
Oddly enough, Dear You has become something of a dividing line amongst Jawbreaker nerds. It’s held up pretty well — a contingent of fans prefer it to the scrappier, uglier stuff of yore, while the diehards still dismiss it out of hand — but it’s typically your favorite or least favorite record, with little middle-ground. Again, Jawbreaker are just that kind of band. With a catalog full of songs as openheartedly vulnerable as these, it’s easy for fans to latch onto particular albums or songs above all others. Sifting the comments on YouTube for just about any Jawbreaker song will find someone insisting that, “No, THIS is the greatest Jawbreaker song ever written.” There is literally no consensus. 24 Hour Revenge Therapy gets the lion’s share of love, but even that isn’t set in stone.
Personally, I’m an equal opportunity offender — I celebrate the band’s entire catalog. As Jawbreaker readies 20th anniversary editions of Bivouac and the Chesterfield King EP for release next week (originally combined on CD; the vinyl reissues separate them once again), the time is ripe to revisit old wounds. This list sets out to compile the best of them all — you will disagree, and you should, because these songs will mean something entirely different to you than they do to me. Speak up and share your favorites in the comments — they’re all worthy.
10. “Want” from Unfun (1990)
The very first song on the very first album proved to be Jawbreaker’s first legitimate classic, hitting pay dirt right out of the gate. The bassline burbles along like a bouncing ball, ducking and weaving around a stinging single-string guitar, until the drums come stomping down the hall — the hooks are set before Blake sings a word. From the get-go you can hear the hallmarks of Jawbreaker to come: the push and pull of the rhythm section, the subtle melody woven into the layered lead guitars that only comes out after repeat listens, and the classically angsty, doubt-fueled lyrics from Blake Schwarzenbach. You’d never know this is a love song to listen to the verse, until you hit that perfect chorus and Blake is crooning “I want you” over and over. It’s actually one of the brightest moments on one of their darkest records — 20+ years on, “Want” positively shines.
9. “The Boat Dreams From The Hill” from 24 Hour Revenge Therapy (1994)
It’s no secret the lyrics are the special sauce with Jawbreaker. Blake can present an image 10 times as vivid as most of us could with a Hasselblad. While he dabbled with form throughout Jawbreaker’s career, here he stretches his own limits and strikes gold with the story of a landlocked, anthropomorphic boat. Perspectives shift from the boat itself as it dreams of water to the wistful old pensioner who works on the boat aimlessly, with no real hope of finishing it. The metaphor isn’t that complex — stunted dreams and new beginnings — but the execution is golden. “Sometimes rainy days drop boyish wonder.”
8. “Like A Secret” from Bivouac (1992)
Someone somewhere once coined the term “Jawbreaker part” to describe the massive minor key break-down-and-build-up noise jams that these guys are so good at — and it’s a spot-on descriptor. For a band mostly famous for lyrics, it’s the “Jawbreaker part” where the whole band gets to shine: bass chords rule the day while Blake rips moody leads; the kick drum stomps like mad until the whole song collapses under its own weight. They may not have invented the move, but they dabbled with it on Unfun (see the moody ending of “Fine Day“) and took full ownership on Bivouac. If Jawbreaker roughly operates in two modes — tight pop vs. expansive catharsis — “Like a Secret” took the expansive mode and honed it into the perfect blast of noise and feeling. To quote the classic shirt (made famous by Kurt Cobain way back when): “When it pains, it roars.”
7. “Accident Prone” from Dear You (1995)
One thing money absolutely can buy: huge production. Whereas so many choices on Jawbreaker’s major-label swan song came off as excessive, awkward, or heavy-handed — see the ridiculous crunch of “Basilica,” the overwrought repurposing of Christopher Walken’s Annie Hall quote in “Jet Black“, and the titular groan of a metaphor in “Oyster” — here the band channeled the weight of a thousand guitars to hammer home a battering ram of a chorus and a stellar, sweeping bridge. The bigness of everything serves the song just right, actually heightening the intensity — it’s the one shining moment where Dear You completely fulfills its promise. Years ago I stumbled onto an old single version on cassette (charmingly labeled a “cassingle”): I got all excited before realizing it was the radio edit — the bridge was excised completely and they tripled the chorus, rendering one of their best songs repetitive and shitty. More proof Geffen had no clue what to do with this band.
6. “Boxcar” from 24 Hour Revenge Therapy (1994)
“Boxcar” is simple and pure, undeniable and perfect. It’s also a bit silly on its face, a remnant of the days when punk rock scene politics still mattered and the notion of “selling out” was a capital offense. Blake decries the scene in general, poking fun at the idea of being a punk and scenes in general: “You’re not punk, and I’m telling everyone / Save your breath, I never was one.” But it feels reactionary: he can’t actually escape the scene he claims not to care about, so he bitches about it instead. It comes off as snotty, bratty, and more than anything: cute. Nowadays “Boxcar” functions more as a time machine back to the pre-Internet days when tree-paper zines like Maximum Rocknroll and punk-on-punk gossip ruled the roost. For a song that makes me feel old, the bratty, bristling attitude captured here is the perfect embodiment of youth. Funny how that works.
5. “Bivouac” from Bivouac (1992)
Bivouac the album was the strangest, most majestic thing Jawbreaker ever did — dark, sprawling suites about kings and sculptors sit alongside story-songs about love and liquor. It’s always been my favorite. “Bivouac” the song is simultaneously the slowest and most explosive song in the band’s catalog — and the longest by a mile at more than 10 minutes, closing out the album on an epic note. Starting with nothing but gentle bass chords, tension gradually builds underneath the most affecting, plaintive vocals we’d ever hear from Blake. Typical of early Jawbreaker, the lyrics are hazy: he could be singing about a musician’s life out on the road or something else. I always twisted it around in my head to be about my own life as an only child. Whatever works. Either way, it’s clearly about loneliness, and it gets intense. By the time the bridge drops, we realize we’re in for a different kind of ride: feedback shimmers and scrapes at your ears as the guitars are finally let loose while the rhythm section pounds away beneath the squall. Several times the song seems to stop, only to interject samples about ants and temporary shelters before the noise slams back down. It feels like it could go on forever; fortunately, it almost does.
4. “Jinx Removing” from 24 Hour Revenge Therapy (1994)
No one does the breakup song like Jawbreaker. Hell, no one does the breakup album like these guys either, and 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is one of the best. “Jinx Removing” handles the subject with more nuance than most could ever hope to muster: it’s a chronicle of a relationship falling apart, and the yearning desire to pull things back together by any means possible, like superstitious nonsense and … taking a good, long walk. “Someone said your name, I thought of you alone / I was just the same, 20 blocks away.” It’s all nostalgia and wistful glances back at the snapshots of a happier life — makes my chest ache every time I hear it.
3. “Kiss The Bottle” from Etc. [b-sides compilation] (recorded in 1992)
Singing/screaming your heart out every night takes its toll. After years of abuse, Blake developed a polyp in his throat, requiring emergency surgery in the middle of a European tour in support of Bivouac. But his voice had been getting worse all along, scratchier and more hoarse with each recording, to the point where it was seriously affecting his ability to perform, never mind sound even passably good. “Kiss The Bottle” was the final song recorded before his surgery, and goddamn if he doesn’t sound like shit. But it doesn’t matter — the song is scrappy as all hell but unstoppable. The tale of two drunks living in the Mission District, it contains the classic Bukowski-inflected couplet, and one of Blake’s best lines ever: “I kissed the bottle / Shoulda been kissing you.” Out of all the worthy Jawbreaker B-sides (gems like “Sea Foam Green,” “Shirt,” “Equalized”), “Kiss the Bottle” remains the band’s most ragged anthem — no small feat.
2. “Ashtray Monument” from 24 Hour Revenge Therapy (1994)
“Best friends, strangers now.” I have no idea if other people love this song as much as I do — this was the Jawbreaker song that first made my own jaw drop, to hear a blast of dark aggression so pure and polished to a filthy shine, carved down into a bite-sized chunk. Most of the really ugly Jawbreaker songs go all out with an instrumental bridge and wailing guitars, the whole Jawbreaker shtick: none of that here. This is a pop song meant to raise welts. Writing about his parents’ divorce, Blake lays bare the pain of the break itself while reveling in the misery of the aftermath. The slightest ray of hope creeps in halfway through: “After all it’s not that bad.” But as he goes on to talk about looking at pictures of all the things they did together, the loss and the deeper resignation to that loss come roaring back: “You said, “I love you.” / I guess you did.” As a punk teenager I mistakenly assumed this was just another breakup song and used it for my own needs, and that’s the glory of Jawbreaker — just about every line is universal enough to hit you in the gut. “Ashtray Monument” is a haymaker.
1. “Chesterfield King” from Bivouac (1992)
Not the flashiest or even the catchiest — just the best. There’s a reason this song is legendary. “Chesterfield King” is the perfect short story boiled down and rendered even more perfect by setting it to music. Tenderness bumps up against tentative young love and fear screws it all up: after an awkward moment of expectation unfulfilled, our young hero (Blake?) bails on his babe to grab a beer at 7-Eleven and reflect on just what went wrong. A chance encounter with a homeless lady — they share an unfiltered Chesterfield King cigarette — lends him the necessary resolve to man up and go back for his girl. Ending with a perfect kiss and another shared cigarette, it’s a song stacked with countless details, each perfect and perfectly real. No recap can match the execution of the lyrics themselves:
“We pulled each other into one, parkas clinging on the lawn, and kissed right there / Said, ‘All my chicks, they smoke these things,’ and handed you a Chesterfield King / Held your hand and watched TV and traced the little lines along your palm.”
The song itself is simple, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a lot like love — when it’s right, it’s right, and you fucking know.