1994 was a defining moments for rock music, particularly the nascent alternative forms pop punk, grunge and emo. East Bay's pride and joy, Green Day, released their major label debut - the seminal Dookie - to critical acclaim. Nirvana, already experiencing their mainstream success a few years prior, were riding the tumultuous wave from Nevermind-follow up In Utero. And then there was Gilman Street brother Jawbreaker, releasing their third full length - exactly one week after Dookie - the genre-underlining, fan-adored 24 Hour Revenge Therapy.
While birthed in the punk alchemy of Unfun, a record that took the passion and aggression of the genre's harder tributaries and reverted the focus inward, Jawbreaker used their sophomore effort, the judiciously titled Bivouac, to declare their M.O. to a growing community lusting as much over the group's musical ingenuity and literate punk character as it's underground cred. As Blake Schwarzenbach ruminated on life's dark, oppressive tendencies, Jawbreaker played a type of music who's longevity was as temporary and unprotected as that of an actual bivouac: melodic and abrupt; gritty and poppy; quick and epic. The experimenting paid off: from the lessons learned came 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. The de facto mainstream success preceded major label debut Dear You and delineated the parameters of the emerging emo movement - music that is both loud and beautiful, lugubrious and personal - a set of ideas that would significantly influence the alternative music landscape for the next decade and beyond.
From the beginning, you could tell Jawbreaker had a different approach than their peers, but struggled to express it. Intentional or not, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy was Jawbreaker's coming out party, if you will. "You're not a punk, and I'm telling everyone," Schwarzenbach announces on "Boxcar", mocking himself. Precluding any possible retaliation, he proffers his own response: "Save your breath, I never was one." Though calling out the culture Jawbreaker were annexed, in what would become one of their was different. 24 Hour Revenge Therapy presented a band finally confident in their unique, albeit imitable brand: a sound at times fuzzy and head bobbing, other times grungy and defeatist, but always stark and never concealing. "I just wrote the dumbest song/ it's going to be a sing along" opened Schwarzenbach on "Indictment", a tongue-in-cheek claim substantiated by the catchy 4-note melody recycled throughout the song. Conversely, on "West Bay Invitational" he spent three minutes recalling the details of an uncomfortable party, crunchy guitars volleying between palm muting and a numbing strum, agitating the most regrettable moments.
Though Jawbreaker avoided writing anthems, that didn't mean there weren't sentiments to rally around. The count off in "Boxcar" is a common retort to stymie the staunchest of style dictators in genres not just limited to punk. For the broken hearted, Jawbreaker provided "Do You Still Hate Me?", an energetic plea to a lost love that asked questions all too familiar ("Are you out there? Do you hear me?/ Can I call you? Do you still hate me?"). Therapy found Schwarzenbach offering several questions - each one rhetorical, but all deserving answers. When he relived his parent's divorce on "Ashtray Monument", Schwarzenbach cautioned the devastation left in the aftermath and arrived to yet another dead end: "No one said that this life was easy. Did that no one ever live a life this hard?"
As far as coming of age goes, Jawbreaker were the real deal, and 24 Hour Revenge Therapy was their most comprehensive story. It wasn't only because Schwarzenbach was just as lost as his fans were. He had an innate ability to relate sardonic, melancholy disclosures in a fashion that was both discreet and available. Schwarzenbach wasn't hiding anything - it was there for the taking. "The Boat Dreams From The Hill" recounted the tale of an abandoned pet project - a deteriorating sea vessel that assumed desire. Schwarzenbach personified the boat simply to metamorphize himself. Whether communicating through symbols or speaking directly, Schwarzenbach's lyrics read like accessible, relatable poetry, propagating his cult of personality, or Cult of Blake.
And deservedly so. At a time when grunge music was defiantly promoting themes of alienation, depression and suicide, it did so through overwrought, convoluted lyrics. Schwarzenbach's literary penchant captivated listeners deeply enchanted by his prose. On "Condition Oakland", Schwarzenbach divulged his (futile) methods for existential relief, only to admit, "this is my condition: desperate, alone, without an excuse. I try to explain. Christ, what's the use?" Jawbreaker slowed and softened on "Ache", a pseudo ballad to personal estrangement, with sentiments like, "these days the people I love are spread so far apart" and "I never felt like this before/ I say that every hour." 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is littered with this type of attractive, satiating Catcher-in-the-Rye-esque writing: angsty, direct, honest.
Selling the Holden persona were Schwarzenbach's vocals. Certainly not the first to use a raspy strain to build profile, Jawbreaker weren't trying to be emotional (e.g. Paul Westerberg) or sexy (e.g. Rod Stewart). Even after Schwarzenbach underwent surgery to remove a polyp from his throat, diminishing its labored quality, his refined vocals - if you could call them that - evoked the kind of sympathy usually attributed to Richard Butler, whose deadpan, insular vocals did more to elevate the Psychedelic Furs' serious aesthetic than the adjoining music (Jawbreaker did release an all-too-apropos cover of the Furs' "Into You Like A Train" on the rarities collection, Etc.). Therapy discovered a middle ground between Schwarzenbach's earlier, snottier vocals and Butler's radio-friendly sound, allowing Jawbreaker to maximize their appeal without sacrificing any fans. (When Schwarzenbach's vocal transformation finally did complete on Dear You, the reaction would not be kind).
Punk music was, in part, a reaction to the over produced and grandiose qualities placating rock in the 70s and 80s. While the response was intuitive - a return to basics with reduced instrumentation, unbridled production and simpler structure - it wasn't comprehensive. Alternative and post-punk tried to answer that problem, but only went so far. Like great artists, Jawbreaker experienced more success dead than alive (even if this honor isn't always bestowed). They weren't rewriting conventions. They were long winded at times ("Condition Oakland") but were more likely to stay within traditional customs. What separated - and elevated - Jawbreaker were their ability to subsume a spectrum of depressing, disruptive, pessimistic emotions without limiting their approach. Their innovation - constructing chord progressions, mixing tone and volume, lyrical writing style - is conspicuous in music proximally immediate and removed (Banner Pilot, Alkaline Trio). This is evident in the appropriately titled tribute album Bad Scene, Everyone's Fault (which is worth noting was released less than a decade after Dear You) that featured a diverse set of artists, including Face to Face, Fall Our Boy, Kill Your Idols, Sparta, Duvall, Bayside and The Æffect. Variety is the spice of life, even if that spice is bitter and repugnant. You listened to Jawbreaker to feel comforted and less alone, but you didn't need comfort or companionship to listen to Jawbreaker.