The 1992 sophomore album from the Bay Area punk trio found them transitioning from the poppier sound of 1990’s Unfun to something darker, grittier, more experimental, and even smarter. This remastered 20th Anniversary reissues appends a couple of bonus tracks to Jawbreaker’s ragged call to arms.
They never became a household name and people still think Face to Face or some shitty “pop punk” band wrote “Chesterfield King”, but Jawbreaker were a huge deal for a lot of people. I remember driving from New Brunswick, N.J., to Philadelphia to bring my girlfriend a promo cassette copy of Dear You, the group’s 1995 post-Green Day major label debut. It had arrived a day earlier at the record store where I worked, and I thought she’d want to hear it. I got out of the van, showed it to her; she tossed it on the ground, smashed it under her foot. Around that same time, a guy I knew from local basement shows, came into the record store, pointed to the tattoo of the Jawbreaker logo on his arm, and shook his head. He had tears in his eyes.
This was a band the underground didn’t want to lose, at a time when commerce wasn’t so closely intertwined with everyday listening experiences. Formed while they were students at NYU, the trio of vocalist/guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach, bassist Chris Bauermeister, and drummer Adam Pfahler relocated to Los Angeles and released their debut, Unfun, in 1990 (it was reissued by Blackball in 2010). Unfun was a good (very fun) record, a solid dose of early 90s emotional, literate punk that established the raw-voiced Schwarzenbach as an underground hero. The band went on the so-called “Fuck 90” tour with Econochrist that summer and broke up, but managed to get back together, relocate to San Francisco, and record 1992’s Bivouac.
The record found them experimenting, and pushing into deeper, angrier, heavier (and headier) waters. People cite 1994’s Steve Albini-helmed 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, which showed up after they played some shows in 1993 with Nirvana, as the group’s pre-major label masterpiece. But Bivouac has always held a special place for me. It’s their darkest collection, a sprawling, shaggy-dog set that found them transitioning from the cleaner, calmer Unfun to something grittier, wilder, and smarter. Bivouac was a ragged call to arms, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy an ambitious offering within that newer space they’d created.
Bivouac also includes one of their most beloved songs, “Chesterfield King”, a poppy anthem a lot of people saw themselves in. It was a perfect punk vignette. In just about four minutes Schwarzenbach sets a scene (“We stood in your room and laughed out loud/ Suddenly the laughter died and we were caught in an eye to eye/ We sat on the floor and did we sit close”) as vivid as good fiction. One of his gifts was finding a way to present specific, personal details (“Held your hand and watched TV and traced the little lines along your palms”) and make them feel universal. So, here, when the protagonist cuts out to catch his breath and ends up sharing smokes and thoughts with a toothless woman in a 7-11 parking lot, you sort of remember this happening to you, too.
But it’s not all love and lovesickness. From opener “Shield Your Eyes” (“There was a sun once/ It lit the whole damn sky/ It kept everything alive”) onward this is an apocalyptic record filled with bigger kinds of searches, depression, and dirt. You get that soul sickness in “P.S. New York Is Burning”, “Parabola”‘s “I saw myself in someone else and hated them,” and “Like a Secret”‘s request: “Don’t talk me down from here/ Let me fly this kite without a string.” It shows up clearest, and more impressively, in the 10-minute closing title track’s search for meaning: “I’m lonely/ I’m an only/ I learned to put on airs/ I needed them to breathe/ Today I wake up.” Here, Schwarzenbach sets an earth clawing scene (“I dug my fingers in the earth/ I drew pictures of my pain/ They were so pretty”) punctuated by feedback, noise, and the singer’s howling of the album title, a shout that hurts and brings down the shelter he’s place around himself. It’s a call for help, though one that doesn’t need to be answered. You get the sense that it’s the act itself that mattered most.
Biouvac‘s 20th Anniversary CD reissue, remastered by John Golden from the original tapes, includes songs from the original studio sessions: “Ache”, which showd up on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, and “Peel It the Fuck Down”, which appeared on the 2002 compilation Etc. Like the original 1992 CD, this version includes the four-songs that appeared on the 1992 Chesterfield King 12″: “Tour Song”, “Face Down”, “You Don’t Know”, and “Pack It Up”. For those who followed the band at the time, those tracks have always felt as much a part of the tracklisting as the 9-song vinyl version. (Fittingly, Blackball has also reissued the 9-song Bivouac and Chesterfield King 12″ on vinyl for the first time in years.)
One of those Chesterfield King tracks, “Tour Song”, ends with the line: “Every little thing must go wrong.” But, the truth is, despite things not working out exactly as planned, everything did not go wrong. People were angry when Schwarzenbach had painful polyps removed from his vocal chords and were ready to riot when, later, he cleaned up his vocal sound for Dear You. That record didn’t sell well enough according to DGC standards, Jawbreaker never became the next Nirvana or Green Day, and in 1996 the group called it quits. But, in retrospect, Dear You was the right record for the band to make. (It’s a great album, just not the one you wanted to hear when you were 21 and navigating a close-knit underground that hadn’t dealt with this sort of thing firsthand.) So, yeah, Jawbreaker may have grown up before we were ready for them to grow up, but their music has managed to age especially well. It feels as vital now as it did two decades ago.