REVIEW: Jawbreaker – ’24 Hour Revenge Therapy (Reissue)’

Jawbreaker 24 hour

Jawbreaker
24 Hour Revenge Therapy (Reissue)

by Chad Jewett

Is there a band with a greater number of plausible “best albums” than Jawbreaker? Or, to put it another way: the Bay Area punk trio released four full-lengths, and 100% of them are eligible to be someone’s favorite LP of all time. Bivouac, the band’s sophomore album was both a dazzling breakthrough and a crackling statement of purpose, a bleary-yet-sharp Big Bang of a record that married taut minor keys to nimble tunefulness in a way that still hasn’t really been replicated (though we might look to Small Brown Bike or The Lawrence Arms for good college tries). Dear You, the band’s embattled swan-song was critically rejected for its high fidelity and sculpted song-craft (and for its major label release…priorities), but the album now plays like a masterpiece of sardonic ennui, the record where Blake Schwarzenbach fully corralled his love of Beat Generation poetry and his gift for hooks into something grandly bummed-out and precisely honed. It might be the real post-Nirvana life raft that Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary is so often positioned as. Even Unfun, Jawbreaker’s debut, remains, for all its embryonic rookie unevenness, a tour-de-force of the moment right before Jawbreaker’s thoughtful confessionalism would establish emo’s modern parameters. You can listen to Unfun and embrace its energy of possibility, at times a relief from the curdled hurt feelings of Dear You or the spent booziness of Bivouac.

But then there’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, which has just received a long overdue expanded vinyl reissue to celebrate its 20th (wow) Anniversary. More spryly pop-crafted than Bivouac (whose song’s frequently double the length and sonic terrain of the more spartan 24 Hour), more light-hearted and casually ironic than the at-times acidic Dear You, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy has somehow ended up both an anomaly and the band’s signature achievement. Even the record’s cover, a multi-colored quilt of singular, weighted images (a clock, a set of matches, pills, a Looney Tunes still) remains evocative, somehow defining the album’s gift for capturing objects and their potential meanings and interweaving humor, pathos, and irony. The LP remains an endearingly complete listen, balanced with alacrity between effusive, bounding pop-punk (“Indictment”, “Boxcar”), spacious post-hardcore (“In Sadding Around”, “Ashtray Monument”), and a certain kind of comforting collegiate weariness (“Out Patient”, “Ache”). The record also continues to sound great; those scratched-up, care-worn guitars which consistently splash and paint the edges of 24 Hour have proven evergreen, and producer and arch-provocateur Steve Albini managed some of his best work in capturing the solid middle-range punch of Adam Pfahler’s drums and Chris Bauermeister’s springy, ranging bass, the tangible pock that they make along the surface of songs like “Boxcar” and “Indictment.”

24 Hour Revenge Therapy also features Jawbreaker’s best collection of songs, and that remains its legacy, even as this vinyl reacquainting underlines the band’s underappreciated grip on sonics. Indeed, the digital bonus tracks which accompany this reissue underline the care that Jawbreaker took in shaping this stuff, including adding muscle to a thinner version of “Boxcar” and sanding down the edges of “Jinx Removing” (though the proto-Blink riff in the “Boat Dreams” demo is intriguing). Songs like “The Boat Dreams From The Hill” and “West Bay Invitational” – the stuff that was already being worked through on Bivouac – reach their perfect apotheosis here. “Ashtray Monument” begins in a shadowy register familiar to fans of the band’s first two LPs, but curls into a roomy burst of a chorus that typified a new angle for the trio. A line like “The predawn white light’s coming on / Bottle on the night stand” is a bulls-eye for Blake Schwarzenbach’s Beat Poet sensibility, but there’s new and captivating tenderness in one of the song’s last lines: “Remember our life: I did the dishes while you read out loud / Best friends, strangers now”. 24 Hour made serious strides in committing Schwarzenbach’s signature detail work into something less about a certain kind of literary masculine hopelessness and more about poignant issues of connection.

Even better – and, at this point, more influential – is the lovely, airy “Ache”, a song whose broad major key strum and roomy arrangement (glimpsed in prototype form on “Big” from Bivouac) gave Schwarzenbach room to double his vocals, to stretch out a voice of increasing flexibility and warmth. As thickly-appointed as the singer’s narrative work could be, “Ache” is poignant in its simplicity: “Lean your head on mine like you used to.” It’s the sort of surprisingly gentle, embracing fatigue that Braid and The Jazz June have both recently put to such great effect in their second, contemporary iterations, allowing punk sharpness to decompress and explore the open air. It’s a similar dreamy quality that defines “Out Patient”, where the band’s normally squalling guitars instead hang fog-like in the margins, giving Chris Bauermeister’s bass room for melody, adding oomph to the song’s build-ups and emphasis to fleeting imagery like the song’s final sentence: “The tears are warm. The body’s numb / Get your coat, your ride is here”.

Yet the album’s most salient stretch comes in the opening triad of “The Boat Dreams From The Hill”, “Indictment”, and “Boxcar”. Set atop churning bass and sheets of corroded guitar, “The Boat Dreams From The Hill” is a wry two-minutes-and-change of melodic punk, its lyrics an ever-widening variation on a boat as metaphor for spiritual immobility: “Boat on a hill, never going to sea / Anchored to a fixer upper’s dream / This boat is beat, never gonna be a boat now”. The track’s hook is a mumbled sing-song (“I wanna be a booooooaaaat / I wanna learn to swiiiiiimmmm”) that manages to at once announce Jawbreaker’s increased grasp on pop structure while simultaneously taking the piss out of the band’s ability to shrug through high-test choruses.

That sense of doubled and tripled irony defines “Indictment”, Jawbreaker’s best pop song that, not coincidentally, happens to be about the process of writing a pop song. “Indictment” swings merrily, major-key chords filigreed by ropy bass and an arching drum gallop; Schwarzenbach’s melody is sticky and indelible, delivered in a hush warmth that he would explore brilliantly in Jets to Brazil. Twenty years later, it remains unclear whether Jawbreaker are having fun at their own expense, mocking the cynicism of pop music, or mocking the cynicism of indie politics that reject pop music: “I just wrote the dumbest song / It’s gonna be a sing along / All our friends will clap and sing / Our enemies will laugh and be pointing”. One can never be totally sure what Schwarzenbach has in mind, earnestness or bile when he wonders aloud: “I’d like to know what’s so wrong with a stupid happy song?”. And we might get our answer in the form of “Boxcar”, a song that makes no bones about critiquing the empty dog-chasing-its-tale logic of punk scene by-laws. That “Boxcar” basically doubles down on the exact same loping major key bounce as “Indictment” while simultaneously reiterating the former song’s frustration with punk’s reactionary corners, might just underline a broader point about Jawbreaker’s very sharp awareness of the tricky dance of growing as artists in a scene suspicious of certain kinds of change. While Dear You would be considered the sell-out record for the label on the back, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is the one with all the melodies, all the sweetness, and all the disavowals: “I’m coloring outside your guidelines / I was passing out when you were passing our your rules”.

24 Hour Revenge Therapy also now plays like a punk Rosetta Stone. One can find the minor/major gloom-pop of Alkaline Trio, the faded-out punk melody of Green Day, the hyper-literate wordplay of Braid, even the bummed-out grandiosity of Balance and Composure in the dense strata of the album. With twenty years hindsight, it’s also fascinating to see the album as the single most complete statement in the band’s catalogue, the most salient document of world-building for the post-collegiate, bars-and-apartments world of Blake Schwarzenbach, poised beautifully between the hungry unruliness of Bivouac and the bitter pill of Dear You, and somehow predictive of the tired poignancy and nostalgic fondness that would mark the best moments of Jets to Brazil. 24 Hour Revenge Therapy remains an all-timer, as complete and transfixing a punk album as your liable to find – an album finally receiving the second act it deserves.

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Half Cloth

Independent Music & Arts Criticism

4 Responses

  1. Lalac says:

    The clock on the sleeve is not just any clock though: http://www.sciencephoto.com/media/341621/view

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