The 13 best songs by Jawbreaker
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Rumours of a Jawbreaker reunion have been rife almost since the (now) seminal three-piece broke up in 1996, but they’ve been especially prevalent recently. Not too long ago, a band even named themselves Jawbreaker Reunion to capitalise on the Google search term (don’t listen to them – they’re terrible), but there’s still no sign that the actual thing is going to happen any time soon, despite the band – guitarist/vocalist Blake Schwarzenbach, bassist Chris Bauermeister and drummer Adam Pfahler – reissuing their classic third album, 1994’s '24 Hour Revenge Therapy', in celebration of its 20th anniversary last year. In the meantime then, here are, in no particular order, the 13 best Jawbreaker songs. It was meant to be 12, but that proved too difficult. And even with the extra grace, there are still plenty missing – not least 'Boxcar', their best-known song. But don’t hold that against us. It was just too damn difficult to choose. And besides, everyone knows that song anyway…
CHESTERFIELD KING (Bivouac, 1992)
Released both as the title track to its own EP and on the same year’s third LP, Bivouac, Chesterfield King is quintessential Jawbreaker. Its sharp and snappy (yet deceptively complex) structure is driven by a raw passion matched only by the characters who inhabit the song. A tale of young love, Schwarzenbach’s pithy and incisive turns of phrase elevate this from a simple love breath into a tome of epic emotional proportions that ruminates not only on the love in question, but through the protagonist’s chance encounter with a “toothless woman” in a 7-11 parking lot, pits the folly and freedom of youth against the experience and wisdom of age, while also confronting the human mortality head on with one simple couplet: “Sat and smoked against the wall. Drank a beer and felt the chill of fall.” Does he get the girl? Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?
ASHTRAY MONUMENT (24 Hour Revenge Therapy, 1994)
Matching intelligent and articulate lyrics (and playing) with an earnest heart-on-sleeve confessionalism, this album – their most acclaimed and probably their best, though it’s a close call – paved the way for a thousand poor imitators, and this is arguably its magnificent centerpiece. “No-one said that this life was easy,” bellows Schwarzenbach. “Did that no-one never live a life this hard? It gets hard.” Blurring the line between truth and fiction – “Best friends, strangers now / Were our kids all we could call common ground?” sings the childless Schwarzenbach – it tells the former through the latter, all the while racing, through its insistent, relentless rhythm, towards some kind of absolution or salvation., The only solace, however, is to be found in what was. “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.”
KISS THE BOTTLE (Etc., 2002)
Initially released on a compilation called Music For The Proletariat, Kiss The Bottle only gained a place on a Jawbreaker album when posthumous rarities collection Etc. was released in 2002. Despite this, its ragged tale of hope in the face of abject despair and poverty made it a firm favourite, and rightly so. A late night cigarette of a song, it was the last track the band recorded before Schwarzenbach’s throat surgery, and the gravelled pain of his delivery only exacerbates the situation of the characters he’s singing about: “Hey mister, can you spare a dime? Some change could make a change, could buy some time.” A short story (or perhaps even a novel) condensed into song form, it’s riddled with empathy for its subjects, who may well still be out there somewhere, looking for an angry fix to get through another troubled night.
CONDITION OAKLAND (24 Hour Revenge Therapy, 1994)
Although Jawbreaker began life as a New York band, they relocated to the West Coast before the recording of Unfun, and soon became a huge part of the burgeoning East Bay punk scene. This song – replete with an (unlicensed) audio clip of Jack Kerouac reading an extract from Lonesome Traveler over the soft distortion of the wispy, wandering instrumental breakdown – captures the band’s sense of West Coast identity perfectly, as well as their late night romanticism (“Climbed out onto the roof so I’d be a poet in the night”), their ever-present sense of isolation (“People kill me these days. There's keys in their eyes but they lock from the inside”) and empty abandonment (“I rode down to the tracks thinking they might sing to me. But they just stared back, broken, trainless and black as night.”). It’s a progressive punk song, simultaneously fast and slow, expansive yet conventional and of all the lyrics of all the Jawbreaker songs, it perhaps contains the one string of lines that sums up the band better than anything: “Read and I felt so small. Some words keep speaking when you close the book. Drank and just about smiled. Then I remembered us in that bed.” Existential crisis, the insignificance of humanity, the burden of wasted potential, literature, alcohol, nostalgia and sex – not bad for four short lines, is it?
EYE-5 (Whack & Blite EP, 1989)
Initially released on the band’s debut EP Whack & Blite, which was later tacked onto the end of debut album Unfun, Eye-5 is the story of a moralistic garbage truck driver who goes on a shooting spree to cleanse the world of evil-doers in a presumed attempt to ascend to Heaven. A breakneck chug of melodic punk, it’s fast and furious, but gives way to pure, ragged beauty in the self-aware chorus: “Though it might sound strange, angels call my name. While it seems insane, I hold them to blame.” Take it as a straightforward tale or a metaphor for the misguided ‘morality’ – read: evil avidity – of the American Right (which, these days, is even scarier than when this song was written), but either way this song remains as potent and relevant now as it was then.
JET BLACK (Dear You, 1995)
Not that Jawbreaker were ever short of dark songs, but as the title of this one suggests, Jet Black is up there with the most depressing of them. It begins and ends with Christopher Walken’s monologue from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, though it removes the comedic neurosis of Walken’s character to render his speech little more than a nihilistic vision of his own apocalypse. Which befits this song perfectly – an introspective examination of psychological and emotional damage, its lilting, searching tune building up to, somewhat ironically, a euphoric explosion of pain and torment, of the resignation and acquiescence after you’ve given up the fight. “I don't scratch so I won't itch. I don't reach so I won't miss. I taste our last kiss.” 20 years later, it still lingers on the lips of everyone who’s heard it. [An aside: though Jawbreaker had used plenty of samples in previous songs, now they were signed to Geffen, they had to be official about it. Which meant that Woody Allen had to listen to, and personally approve, the use of the song. Go Woody!]
DO YOU STILL HATE ME? (24 Hour Revenge Therapy, 1994)
A not-so-straightforward love song, Do You Still Hate Me? is dominated by a sense of haplessness and helplessness in the aftermath of a break-up. A surge of guitars and emphatic drums, it has inhabits the past and the present in equal measure – to quote Million, a song of theirs that should probably be on this list too, it’s all of both and none of one, and full of emotional turmoil and turbulence as a result. What makes it all the more powerful is that it’s a one-way conversation. The chorus is a series of unanswered questions – “Are you out there? Do you hear me? Can I call you? Do you still hate me? Are we talking? Are we fighting? Is it over? Are we writing?” – which eventually gives way to one final, but unheard attempt at reconciliation: “And I miss you”, those four wretched words repeated three times with broken urgency, before a swathe of flurried guitar overpowers them and drowns them out forever.
ACCIDENT PRONE (Dear You, 1995)
When Jawbreaker released Dear You on Geffen in 1995, it was essentially the death of them. Having publicly declared they’d never sign to a major label – as Nirvana and Green Day, etc. had done – the punk community turned their back on them. Partly that was due to the record’s crisp, clear production values, as this song demonstrates. Like Jet Black, it’s one of the slower songs on the record, so not entirely representative of the ebb and flow of the album’s musical pace, but it captures perfectly the theme of lonely despondency that flows throughout it. “It hasn’t been my day for a couple years,” Schwarzenbach announces in the first verse. “What’s a couple more?”
WANT (Unfun, 1989)
The opening track of Jawbreaker’s debut album, Want is a song about just that – an unquenchable, burning desire for somebody else. A blistering attack of guitars and crashing guitars, it starts off with timid inaction – “Dark secrets burn their vessel. Tearing out to grab a mouthful. Chunk of heart destroyed by quiet” – before the building up, musically and lyrically, to the crescendo of its very overt revelation. In other words, this is the song you’d put on a mixtape for your crush to let them know how you feel, because you, too, were as shy as the guy in the song. Why else were you listening to it?
ACHE (24 Hour Revenge Therapy, 1994)
Even Jawbreaker’s most frenetic early songs were tempered with a knack for melody, but until the release of Dear You, Ache was their most mellow moment to date. Over gentle yet overdriven guitars, Schwarzenbach duets with himself, his overlapping lines offering up poetic and poignant couplet after poetic and poignant couplet – “So right, so wrong. Another winter’s coming on”, “Lean your head on mine, like you used to (Used to your lean)”, “I never felt like this before. I say that every hour”, “Just like anyone at all. Safer alone”– until the emotional stakes are so high that you can feel the lump form in his throat (and we’re not talking the polyp he had surgically removed before the band recorded this album).
JINX REMOVING (24 Hour Revenge Therapy, 1994)
While Schwarzenbach’s literate and literary – though often abstruse and hyper-personal – lyrics helped elevate Jawbreaker above the vast majority of their contemporaries, he was also able to just cut right to the bone. This song, perhaps more than any in their discography, captures the incredible clash between the more cerebral elements (“Too old not to get excited about rain and roads, Egyptian ruins, our first kiss”) and the purely emotional (“I love you more than I ever loved anyone before, or anyone to come. Someone said your name, I thought of you alone. I was just the same, 20 blocks away”). And even if its exact meaning is somewhat obscured at times by the song’s rather abstruse imagery (“Blew twelve and kissed the thirteenth finger. ‘Rabbit, rabbit,’ on the first. I hold my breath. Did tricks I hoped you wouldn't notice. A superstitious hyperrealist. I'll make you mine.”), it doesn’t really matter – even if you don’t understand it all, you certainly feel every last word.
SEA FOAM GREEN (Etc., 2002)
Another non-album track the band recorded for a comp – and another fan favourite, Sea Foam Green is a continual torrent of escalating lyrical intensity set to a driven, driving melody. Which, given that it’s about a road trip, is very apt. Of course, it’s not just about driving – it’s about the thoughts that consume you on long drives, even for someone with nothing to think about, and the weight that unassuming moments place on your heart and mind. “We met in rain. You asked me in. Seemed like a good sign,” opines Schwarzenbach. It seems harmless, like everything is fine. But then comes the kicker: “Now I need a guillotine to get you off my mind.” It ends with the narrator – Schwarzenbach, or some semi-fictionalised version of him, turning to the bottle and drowning his sorrows to get over them. Of course, as it does, that just makes things worse: “I tried to drink you off my mind. I just got wasted. It only made the pain that much more acute. But cute isn’t strong enough a word. Unintentionally gorgeous.” That’s going to be one epic hangover…
WEST BAY INVITATIONAL (24 Hour Revenge Therapy, 1994)
Only Jawbreaker could take a song about a house party and turn it into a tale of existential pondering. Sure there’s excessive drinking scattered throughout (“Chris got a pony keg of Loose Charm”, “Someone was passing out somewhere”) and sexual encounters – (“We hung our clothes up on the floor/And put our faith in a closed door”) – but within the drunken decadence, there’s also a yearning for more than just these frivolous and ephemeral moments. ”We kissed a shot of Kentucky straight / I swore this life is worth the wait.” The song is hyper-personal – the party is littered with “people from bands and labels” and Chris presumably refers to bassist Chris Bauermeister – but transcends those specifics for much more universal reach. The band would throw another equally thought-provoking party on Dear You, too, with Bad Scene (Everyone’s Fault), but the dramatic, epic urgency of this tune means it wins out. Just.