Quarantining The Past: Jawbreaker’s ‘Dear You’

    Last week, we talked about a classic DGC debut album from 1990. Today, we fast-forward to 1995 and a more infamous DGC release: Jawbreaker’s Dear You.

    It is, essentially, the poster child for punk-rock selling out, right? Band releases its best record — 24 Hour Revenge Therapy — then signs to a major label, cleans up its sound to a nice polish, long-time fans hate it, new listeners don’t get it, pressure and stress and failure weigh on already fractured relationships in the band, band breaks-up. It’s such a common story, and Dear You such a perfect example, that its almost become more archetype than artifact.

    Things have changed in the 16 years since its release and with time, and reissues, Dear You has gotten a re-evaluation. In 1995, it was a major-label flop, an undermining of the punk-rock ethos, a brooding, self-important, overproduced failure. Time has morphed it into a bright spot in ’90s rock music. The clean production and Blake Schwarzenbach’s post-surgery, growl-lite vocals now are talked about like virtues rather than vices, like cleaner conduits for sweet, thoughtful tunes. Schwarzenbach’s pitch-black songs, the new line on Dear You goes, are detailed, emotive, and convey a deep maturity.

    Neither of these readings of the album quite get it right too. Perhaps more informative is the arguments that come from people who continue to rail against Dear You. People that grew up with it and have outgrown its whiny heartache. To them, its tone is unforgivably immature, the songs dreary trudging things that allow Schwarzenbach to navel-gaze so completely and with such insularity that he nearly curls in on himself.

    This would be the most accurate depiction of the record, except that it takes one thing for granted, namely that Blake Schwarzenbach is playing it straight. That this album, with all its histrionic hurt, represents him. But what if it doesn’t? What if the man perfectly capable of sending up the punk-rock ethos that condemned his band was doing a different sort of sending up here? What if those swarms of insufferable emo bands that came after Jawbreaker were just too in love with their best friend’s girlfriend to get the joke?

    Or not the joke, maybe, but the point. The fact is if Schwarzenbach — 27 at the time of the album’s release — is playing it straight, Dear You is a tough pill to swallow. It isn’t mature because it isn’t well-rounded. With the exception of perhaps “Basilica” and maybe the intention of “Save Your Generation”, these songs are hopeless and helpless. In places they are downright petulant (“Jet Black”), in other wild eyed and creepy (“Fireman”), and sometimes childishly ugly (he makes up the word “sluttering”, so yeah). These elements are so amplified, and in sometimes push so hard, that they feel like charicatures. And if you go back to the start, with “Save Your Generation,” you realize they kind of are.

    “A simple rule,” he sings at the end of that song, “every day be sure you wake.” It’s a song against apathy, against a generation bogged down in slump-shouldered disaffection. “Survival never goes out of style,” he claims, pushing against the fading grunge trend, or really the persistent underground trend, towards disconnection and irony and wallowing romantically in heartache. Of course, then the rest of the album embraces exactly that. The very next song is called “I Love You So Much It’s Killing Us Both.”  On “Fireman,” Blake “just smoked and watched you burn.” And as the record goes he is constantly saving people from him. His persona here is troubled, creepy, hurt, but also toxic. That he is “Accident Prone” doesn’t mean his mistakes are contained, just that he won’t take responsibility when they reach out and hurt the “you” this album is addressed to.

    The music itself plays like a lesson in melodrama. The guitars are thick with distortion, a kind of hiss that is troubling because it is both super-loud and totally under control. Bassist Chris Bauermeister drags Schwarzenbach’s guitars down into a dark rumble, and drummer Adam Pfahler pushed the whole thing along like a laboring caboose behind a weighty freight train. His percussion is the churning pulse of these otherwise dead-eyed songs, but you can feel him pushing uphill. This flies in the face of Green Day’s Dookie (released the year before as a huge success and produced by Dear You producer Rob Cavallo), which couched tales of disillusionment in bright melodies and bratty power-chord bursts, or even Rancid’s essential …and Out Come the Wolves, which came out the same year as Dear You.

    Those records, built on the purity and perpetual adolescence of a certain vein of punk rock, are in stark contrast to Dear You, an album that meshes that with the excesses of the fading trends in popular rock music that came just a couple years before. The kind of unrepentant angst Schwarzenbach deals in here barely holds a candle to the more cryptic but no less petulant songs of Kurt Cobain or the incomprehensible brooding of Eddie Vedder. If he’s whining — as persona or in earnest — he’s not alone, and it’s odd that we chose him to not let off the the hook.

    The difference between Schwarzenbach and the Cobains and Vedders (besides record sales) is that Blake wears his mask more overtly, playing the part of the navel-gazer to point out it’s futility. He even cracks the curtain every now and again, giving us what we want with the driving snark of “Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault” or when, on “Untitled Track” he sighs how “crazy people are so fucking boring,” after an album of unchecked pathological behavior.

    And the amazing thing about Dear You is that it still sounds brilliant. “Accident Prone” is, for all its melodrama, a perfectly epic rock song. “Chemistry” (along with “Lurker II: Dark Son of Night”) is one of the great teen-angst tunes out there, and comes closest to toeing the line between send-up and sincerity. It’s those moments, where Schwarzenbach is clearly reflecting, where there’ s some temporal distance to the narrative, that we see how detailed and affecting he can be, and then we see how he twists those skills into this condemning sleight of hand all over the record.

    We’re right to re-evaluate the quality of Dear You. It’s not the colossal failure it was initially dismissed as. But it’s also not confirmation of the purity of Schwarzenbach’s genius — at least not on the surface. The brilliance comes in how he convinces us of all this. He pulls off a trick we take for granted with acts like Morrissey: he seems for all the world like a brooding, sad bastard, and yet he can skewer the sad bastard like no other. Dear You doesn’t romanticize this possessed hurt so much as it holds it to the light, and that the band never breaks character makes it all the more effective.