It’s a tired old story. In fact, I lament the fact that I even have to tell it, but here goes: indie band makes good, signs to major label, gets accused of selling out, and evaporates into thin air. It’s too tired to even talk about. No one cares anymore. Some bands make it, some bands don’t. We go on about our lives. Sure, there are moments when I feel bad that it happened to Jawbreaker. They were good. Blake Schwarzenbach is a talented songwriter, with a remarkable voice and terrific sense of the ironic. On the other hand, many feel that Jawbreaker got what they deserved, being that they are often considered the progenitors of a thousand demon emo spawn who should repent forever for what they’ve done to punk. Given emo’s recent history, this seems like a valid point, but, folks, let’s be honest, punk hasn’t faired much better over the years. The recent reissue of Jawbreaker’s long out-of-print 1995 major label debut, Dear You, gives us a chance to remove this album from its stale, contentious context and examine the contents with one simple question in mind: is this a good rock record? Should it be lifted into the pantheon of overlooked and ill-treated classics or cast forever into the cut-out bin of history?
In many ways the songs on Dear You prefigure their own criticism. The first verse of “Save Your Generation”, seems oddly profound: “There’s a million open windows / I’m passing these open windows / There is plenty to criticize / It gets so easy to narrow these eyes / But these eyes will stay wide / I will stay young / Young and dumb inside.” Bereft of anger, Schwarzenbach and company are asking us to listen. What was once widely considered watered-down punk now sounds more like harmless alternative radio. The big rock, Marshall-stack guitars could probably stand to come down in the mix and some warm tones would definitely be an improvement, but that realization is still a few years down the road. The real problem for many is that the record quickly proceeds into territory that has drawn a lot of fire over the years: lovelorn self-deprecation. If anything, “I Love You So Much It’s Killing Us Both” and “Fireman” are both squarely situated on the punk side of rock, but lyrically, Schwarzenbach is letting us get awfully close. Lines like “I don’t think I hate you enough to commit you to me” and “Seems I couldn’t save you from me” became the hallmark of the emo generation. The question is: is this Schwarzenbach’s fault? Case in point: over the years, many fans and on-lookers have blamed Springsteen for the overzealous interpretation of “Born in the USA” because of its chanted refrain and over-the-top sensibilities. But wasn’t his portrayal of the struggles of workingclass Americans as patently obvious as Schwarzenbach’s stated desire to stay young and be honest? Is either man entirely responsible for fan reaction? The answer is yes and no, but in Schwarzenbach’s case he asked the kids to listen and, goddamn it, they did. For better or worse.
“Accident Prone” is the first time that your ears perk up and you start to think you are, indeed, listening to a great rock record. It is, in many ways, the album’s best and most lasting song because the band emerges with a real lust for the dynamic. They rarely ever rely on the easy structure of punk, instead moving fluidly from moment to moment without ever wearing thin. The next time we see these flashes of brilliance is on “Million”. Raging choruses aside, the melodic verses show a heightening awareness of the band’s debt to its forefathers. And the punks can’t honestly complain about a track like “Lurker II”. It moves with enough sweaty energy to make you forget all about major labels and whatever else totally sucks shit. But, with the good, comes the bad. “Jet Black”, for instance, seems almost obsessively maudlin when compared with a track like “Accident Prone”. Lines like “Don’t concern yourself with my slow dying” elicit squirms rather than the intended sympathy. “Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault” is a maddening, cloying tale of bad parties and sad people and “Unlisted Track” is a somewhat awkward acoustic number that directly informs us of what Schwarzenbach would explore with varying degrees of success in Jets to Brazil. Also, it should be pointed out that long time fans might be gladdened by the inclusion of five bonus tracks. Although four of the tracks were made available on Blackball’s Jawbreaker b-side compilation, Etc.
Unfortunately, even a listen removed from context fails to provide the intended answer. This album’s naysayers have made their point and the emo enthusiasts will probably always treasure this album as a classic example of a sweeter, simpler time. For the rest of us, this record is simply a good, but not great, example of a band’s last hurrah before disappearing forever into the record industry’s gaping maw.