I stood in the Magic Stick in Detroit, Michigan, on a warm September evening in 1998. The Promise Ring were headlining that night and had never failed to deliver an effervescent set. However, on this night, they were not the main attraction, unimaginable as that was. We eagerly awaited our first earfuls of the opening act, Jets to Brazil, whose new record would not drop until six weeks later.
Why all this excitement? Jets to Brazil was the new project from Blake Schwarzenbach of Jawbreaker.
Jawbreaker were one of the bands that cut across all of my friend groups. To paraphrase Michael Azerrad, Jawbreaker Could Have Been Our Lives. We saw ourselves in the ebb and flow of all ages shows, crushes and romantic failings, and scene politics. We stayed up late playing records, dissecting the lyrics for the references that would point us to another band or book, or movie. We were even early adopters of Dear You, a maligned-at-the-time record now part of the indie canon.
Our beloved band imploded in 1996 after playing in half-filled rooms with loud factions of hostile, disenfranchised fans who came to share their dissatisfaction with the major-label debut. It’s quaint to imagine the adverse reactions to “selling out” that held fast in the 1990s, but it was serious business. Jawbreaker was ours, and many of us didn’t feel like sharing.
After Jawbreaker disbanded, we wondered if we’d even hear more music from Schwarzenbach. He spent time writing for Spin and traveling before settling into New York and teaching. Despite the backlash, whatever came next from anyone in Jawbreaker would still be hotly anticipated. After the initial reaction to Dear You, fans slowly began to come around to it, and even those who didn’t still hold out hope that the time on DGC would snap Schwarzenbach into a return to his fiercely independent, noisy punk roots.
Jets to Brazil were formally introduced as the new Blake Schwarzenbach project and promptly signed to Jade Tree, one of the most respected and revered emo labels of the late 1990s and early 2000s. While Schwarzenbach got most of the attention, Jets to Brazil were a supergroup featuring Chris Daly of Texas Is the Reason fame on drums and Jeremy Chatelain from hardcore bands such as Handsome and Iceburn on bass.
They recorded their debut, Orange Rhyming Dictionary, with indie legend J. Robbins of Jawbox and Burning Airlines fame. Robbins was the go-to producer for emo and indie bands at the time, and his hand continues to guide countless revered emo and punk records. However, despite the pedigree, its sound and lyrics took some adjusting for longtime fans.
That night in Detroit, Jets to Brazil took the stage to a roar from the crowd. The set began with “Sweet Avenue”, and we weren’t sure what to make of it. A quiet, reflective song about feeling peaceful in a new relationship was about as far from the desperate lyrics and elevated punk sound of Dear You and certainly even further removed from the sacred earlier records.
But should I have been surprised? Desperate as I was to bond with Jets to Brazil, I came away interested in the record but not blown away. I suppose I wanted a continuation of Dear You, but what would that have accomplished? Making it destroyed the band I love. Certain songs stood out, including the heavy, ominous “Heart-Shaped Box” cousin “I Typed for Miles”, which was inspired by the Coen Brothers’ classic Barton Fink and ends with a cathartic repeat of Schwarzenbach yelling, “You keep fucking up my life”, but they didn’t sound much like Jawbreaker. Still, I waited out the next several weeks and headed to the record store immediately on 27 October 1998. I couldn’t give up on Blake that easily.
I hit play on my Discman. Without the live preview of Orange Rhyming Dictionary, I would have been even more taken aback. The album cover, with its orange and yellow blocks and black text, certainly fit into the Jade Tree aesthetic at the time, and the production was aces as expected. But the first three tracks all signified that Schwarzenbach would not sit still or crank out another dozen punchy anthems of exquisite heartbreak. The opener, “Crown of the Valley”, sounded far more rock than punk, incorporating a wah-wah pedal. The lyrics were a left turn into a malaise of a different sort, from the confounded idle rich of “Crown of the Valley” to the generalized anxiety and paranoia of “Morning New Disease” and synthesizers in “Resistance Is Futile”. These opening tracks seemed inspired by time in bookstores rather than punk clubs, with lines like “You watch TV while we watch you” and “For your protection, we’ve installed this camera.”
After the first three songs introduced the listeners to Brave New Blake, the following two tracks hew closer to the sounds most fans hoped for. These songs have more of an indie and emo sound, much to the delight of Dear You’s fans. “Starry Configurations” builds to a big finish before signing off with the line, “Why am I waiting for you to see I’m alive?” Similarly, “Chinatown” begins quietly and has plenty of the classic Schwarzenbach turns of phrase, from “Most of the killers never get famous, and it’s hard on everyone” to “All the firefighters put out my fires, took all my matches” (perhaps a nod to the failed Dear You lead single “Fireman”) to “Some make exhaustion a mode of expression.” The song has a major chorus and a runtime closer to Dear You’s epics “Jet Black” and “Accident Prone”.
Next is “Sea Anemone”, and it kicks off the despairing, thematically heavy second half of Orange Rhyming Dictionary with a spare, melancholy song with some plaintive, heartbreaking lines, including, “Now I’m making out the shapes / Like the shower rod, can it take my weight?” and “Take your name off of the lease / You can even keep the name, it never suited me.”
Then, “Lemon Yellow Black” marches in with an anthemic guitar riff and ambiguous lyrics that could reference drugs, racism, World War II, misguided patriotism, or maybe even all of it at once. Regardless, it sets the stage for a trilogy of songs that deal with addiction, depression, and medication, all familiar territory for Schwarzenbach. “Conrad”, which nods to the main character in Robert Redford’s Oscar-winner Ordinary People and describes previous and future suicide attempts with angels laying odds instead of intervening and parents apologizing in advance for maids finding dead bodies. The narrator of “King Medicine” is watching someone important waste away to heroin, ending with the heartbreaking line, “King Medicine, this subject loves you.”
“I Typed for Miles” references Truman Capote‘s famous critique of Jack Kerouac (“That’s not writing. It’s just typing”) and serves as a self-critique. The vivid descriptions of the writing process conjure the bleakness of Barton Fink typing away in his Hollywood apartment, trying to write a B-movie about wrestling. This is the song that ended that set in Detroit, and as odd as it is to say, it gave me hope for the record, with the sinister sound and Blake shouting, “You keep fucking up my life” over and over.
After the show, my friends and I convened to talk about the Jets to Brazil set. None of us were blown away by it, but much like the turning tide for Dear You, soon enough, we were all obsessing over the record and never missed a show until the band played for the last time in Michigan at the Blind Pig in summer 2003. I scarcely remember that show (chalk it up to focusing on a crush. Blake would approve, I think), but I would have committed it to memory if I knew it would be the last time I was going to see Jets to Brazil.
Orange Rhyming Dictionary received generally good-to-great reviews and is now considered a pivotal record in the evolution of emo. Jets to Brazil returned in 2000 and delivered another left turn, this time into rootsier, Wilco-inspired rock with Four Cornered Night. Sticking to the plan of surprise on the first track, opener “You’re Having the Time of My Life” sounds right out of the Jawbreaker playbook, from its title to the shift it takes in the back end. From there, though, Jets to Brazil explore pretty ballads, even more keyboards, and acoustic guitars.
Jets to Brazil’s final record, Perfecting Loneliness, would split the difference between Jawbreaker-adjacent guitar-based songs and the balladry of Four Cornered Night, with Schwarzenbach reflecting on getting older on songs like “Wish List” and taking a timely swipe at George W. Bush. It’s overstuffed at over 60 minutes but contains some of their best songs and Schwarzenbach’s most affecting, openhearted lyrics.
Between Jets to Brazil and before rebooting Jawbreaker for festivals and a Dear You victory lap, Schwarzenbach also had two other projects: Thorns of Life, which played live and recorded but never released any music, and Forgetters, which hewed closer to the early Jawbreaker sound with its first release in particular, but with more overtly political lyrics. “Too Small to Fail” recaptures that early Jawbreaker magic from the Bivouac era, and “Hoop and Swan” sounds like it could have dropped between 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and Dear You.
Perfecting Loneliness has only grown even more vital as I navigate middle age. Last year, I tearfully shouted every word to Dear You on the Covid-delayed 25th-anniversary tour. It’s unclear what is next for Schwarzenbach other than popping up on some festivals as part of Jawbreaker. Still, many fans would love to see a victory lap for his next Difficult Band on the anniversary of their debut album. While Orange Rhyming Dictionary wasn’t the return to gritty punk many predicted, it did solidify that while Schwarzenbach’s music wouldn’t be pigeonholed, he would retain his commitment to the meticulous lyricism that had drawn so many of us in. Jets to Brazil Became Our Lives, too.