The reissue of Jawbreaker’s 1993 classic serves as a reminder that, regardless of how it’s framed or reframed, the music on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy offers some of the best examples of punk music crammed with emotion. These are life-changing songs that still give goosebumps. It’s curious to see how this sound’s been picked up and softened by the bands that came after—there’s echoes of it, certainly, but nobody’s nailed Jawbreaker’s snarling mixture of tender and tough since.
It’s difficult explaining what it was like in 1991. The popular summary of “The Year Punk Broke” involves Nirvana’s Nevermind dominating Top 40 radio and shifting the way people listened to music. This is definitely true on one level, but there were plenty of music fans of a certain age and temperament who were already digging deeper than that, and continued hearing things the same way after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a sensation.
But, still, it was a strange time for people heavily invested in the underground, a pre-internet moment when indie groups didn’t appear on late night TV as regularly as they do now, you never gave much thought to advertising or PR, and you could walk up to someone wearing a Jesus Lizard T-shirt and know you’d have a lot in common. So, even if you didn’t pay much attention to Nirvana’s ascension, when punk did break, previously small bands were swept up and placed in a context they were unfamiliar with until that moment; as a result, more people were coming to shows, wearing those shirts, and muddying the waters.
In this era, the Oakland-via-New-York punk trio Jawbreaker, fronted by the charismatic Blake Schwarzenbach, were one of the bands you built romantic and platonic relationships around, a group that, at their height, felt more important than more basic, run-of-the-mill acts in your record collection. (They themselves felt, oddly, like family—or at least very close friends.) As far as the pervasive grunge narrative and their place in the post-1991 world, they toured with Nirvana in October of 1993 shortly before releasing their third, most beloved album, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. That tour and the album led to a million dollar record deal with DGC and their fourth and final record, Dear You, which they recorded with Dookie producer Rob Cavallo and released in September of 1995.
People weren’t into that major label record, to put it mildly. My girlfriend at the time smashed the promotional cassette copy I gave her and walked away in disgust. People were shell-shocked at the glossier production: I honestly saw a man with a Jawbreaker tattoo weeping at the record store where I worked. Schwarzenbach had undergone surgery to remove a polyp from his vocal chords before recording 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, but we thought that’s why his gnarled vocals sounded cleaner on Dear You. It didn’t matter to us that the polyp had been painful, and maybe life threatening—we’d lost our voice as he regained his. Part of it was the times—the post-Nevermind label feeding frenzy hitting people who thought they were immune to it—and part of it was because, really, they were more than just a band to people: Jawbreaker articulated why you got into punk, and once you did, why you stayed there. Like the musical companions to the punk rock zine Cometbus, their songs felt like how-to manuals, as well as holy writ.
The biggest issue, though, was that 24 Hour Revenge Therapy was a punk masterpiece. When listening to Dear You now, with clearer ears, it obviously has merit—in fact, it’s a very good record—but at the time, it was following the group’s most beloved collection and folks were depressed. (When you listen to the two in tandem in 2014, the shift remains marked, and 24 is the stronger, more memorable collection, but Dear You does feel like a logical next move.)
If 24 Hour Revenge Therapy were a book, it’s the kind you’d carry around in your pocket. Jawbreaker recorded the bulk of it with Steve Albini, and did three of its songs with Bivouac producer Billy Anderson (Sleep, High on Fire, Melvins). Bivouac, which they’d released in 1992, was more progressive overall, as the band expanded to writing ambitiously huge, heavy songs. On 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, they reined things in and offered up simpler, punkier tracks, hearkening back to the sound of the 1990 debut Unfun.
The 11 songs hit on multiple levels—as catchy pop-punk anthems, as well as first-hand documentation of what it meant to be involved in that world at that time. 24 Hour RevengeTherapy draws a landscape of people hopping into trains and house parties, kids with chipped teeth drinking too much coffee, kissing on roofs, and fucking in bathrooms: “We hung our clothes up on the floor and put our faith in a closed door.” Schwarzenbach’s mix of punk poetry (“You don’t know what I’m all about/ Like killing cops and reading Kerouac”), earnest feelings (“We’re too smart to watch TV/ We’re too dumb to make believe this is all we want from life”), and real-life details (“Remember our life?/ I did the dishes while you read out loud”) won people over. As did the gruff, shredded vocal delivery, which came off like Paul Westerberg (or Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler) tearing into Crass.
It’s hugely romantic stuff, in all senses of the word. The album opens with a song from the point of view of a broken-down boat that will never see the ocean again, then fixates on the number 13 (on “Jinx Removing”, Schwarzenbach refers to himself as “a superstitious hyperrealist”) and on losing your voice and your love: “Someone said your name/ I thought of you alone/ I was just the same 20 blocks away.”
Basically, Schwarzenbach wrote about being Blake Schwarzenbach, warts and all. On “Condition Oakland”, he howls “Climbed out onto my roof/ So I’d be a poet in the night” and makes like Young Werther: “This is my condition/ Desperate, alone, without an excuse/ I try to explain/ Christ, what’s the use?” On “Do You Still Hate Me?”, he sets one of his crystal clear scenes—”I have a picture of you and me in Brooklyn/ On a porch, it was raining/ Hey, I remember that day… And I miss you”—followed by a series of questions: “Are you out there?/ Do you hear me?/ Can I call you?/ Do you still hate me?” In the land of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, nothing and nobody sticks around, but that doesn’t mean you forget.
The songs people talked about most, though, were probably “Boxcar” and “Indictment”, which predicted the aftermath of Dear You. Both are extremely catchy, and feel like parts of a whole. The snappy “Indictment” opens with self-incrimination (“I just wrote the dumbest song/ It’s gonna be a sing along”), a prediction (“All our friends will clap and sing/ Our enemies will laugh and be pointing”), and Blake’s own two cents (“It won’t bother me”). He goes on: “We could be the next group that you rob… It isn’t who you know/ It’s who you burn/ It means nothing/ Selling kids to other kids/ If you think we changed our tune, I hope we did.” “Indictment” is tongue-in-cheek, but there’s a lot of truth to it. Schwarzenbach dug the knife in deeper with “Boxcar”, which opens with the classic lines, “You’re not punk and I’m telling everyone/ Save your breath, I never was one” and the sing-a-long chorus he promised in a song earlier: “I was passing out when you were passing out your rules/ One, two, three, four/ Who’s punk?/ What’s the score?” Again, always asking questions.
Though Schwarzenbach was the cult hero, it wasn’t all about him: bassist Chris Bauermeister and drummer Adam Pfahler combined with Blake’s serrated voice and guitar perfectly, creating songs that felt refined and raw, precise and shaggy. This is the sort of music where drum fills and bass lines function as major hooks; where the tone remains as lodged in your head as the words.
This 24 Hour Revenge Therapy reissue, which is out on Pfahler’s label, includes bonuses: dirtier alternative takes of the album tracks “The Boat Dreams From the Hill”, “Boxcar”, “Do You Still Hate Me?”, “Jinx”, and the outtakes “First Step” and “Friends Back East”, which were included on the compilation Etc. All are interesting in providing context for the proper album, and it’s worth hearing the different versions of otherwise familiar songs—like waking up earlier than normal and seeing the sunlight hit your kitchen in a way you hadn’t before.
Mostly, it’s just interesting to return to this music. Jawbreaker were never actually called “emo” at the time, at least not in my circles, but have been lumped in with the genre more than 20 years later. It’s curious to see how the sound’s been picked up and softened by the bands that came after—there are echoes of it, but nobody’s nailed Jawbreaker’s snarling mixture of tender and tough. Regardless of how it’s framed or reframed, or what people decide to retroactively tag it, the music on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy offers some of the most indelible examples of punk music crammed with emotion. These are life-changing songs that, a couple decades later, still give goosebumps.