Bivouac is an album stuck. It's camped down -- permanently, despite its title -- between Jawbreaker's blistering debut, Unfun, and their classic 1994 album 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. This might not be surprising but it is unfortunate, because it stands up to those records not by repeating their successes but by leaping out on its own. It's the album that set up, more than those other records, the great variety of sounds that made up their only major-label album, 1995's Dear You.
It's also the opposite of those other records, which may make it tough to take at times. Unfun was a blast of lovelorn punk energy, an album recorded in two days and unleashed on us, warts 'n all. It had strange production, Blake Schwarzenbach's rasping yelp buried in the mix, but the bass of Chris Bauermeister and drums of Adam Pfahler to drive the songs forward. Not only that, but Jawbreaker sported a line-up with more names that sounded like German beers than any other working band, and had a thick sound to go with it. 1994's 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is the album with "Boxcar." It's the Jawbreaker album to a lot of people, the one with the best songs on it.
And there are some classics on there, no doubt, but it's also celebrated more for its accessibility than anything. For all the cries for something "alternative" from the punk-rock sect, those that loved Jawbreaker were fans that couldn't ignore (and who could blame them?) their pop sensibilities. They wanted catchy, angry tunes, and that 1994 album gave those to them in droves. But Bivouac was another thing altogether, a far more patient album. This was the ambitious record the band labored over, taking far longer to record this than that two-day stint for Unfun.
That larger scope and ambition may not be readily noticeable on opener "Shield Your Eyes," but not for any faults of the song. In fact, it's a song that sharpens the hooks of Unfun and scrapes them across basement-show floors, despite being written years before (it was actually the first song the band recorded in 1989). It's a catchy tune, but all the staring into the sun, the hooks, the words that arise from Blake's throat like razors, Pfahler's drums riding the high-hat, but pounding with a deep resonance -- it all feels subterranean. If Blake is shielding his eyes, it's because he seems to be rising out from the underground they laid to waste on Unfun. Appropriately enough, "Big" leans a bit more into the album's ambitions. It's Jawbreaker's punk aesthetics writ large, as the punchy hook that opens the song breaks down into spacey ringing chords and Blake's keening voice, before Pfahler's drum fill leads them into a muddy, funky breakdown. Hearing the mix of searing hooks of these first two songs, mixed with a devastating low end, it's no wonder engineer Steve Albini wanted in on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy.
Schwarzenbach also delves deeply into his themes of isolation on "Big", and not just in the way he wonders "Don't it make you feel small?" In fact, the true beauty of Bivouac is how the music itself reflects much of that isolation. The music seems oppressively huge at times, overwhelming the players themselves and Schwarzenbach in particular. The opening riff for "Big" starts off slicing and angular but breaks down into feedback, into nothingness. The riff quits for a minute before it picks back up, and in it you feel the aloneness of the singer.
"Chesterfield King," the most famous song here for all the right reasons, is bittersweet, but the expert shifts between hard-hit chords and palm-mutes ones shows the vacillation between opening up ("She leaned down and kissed my cheek") and closing off ("I was scared but it felt sweet"). It's no wonder the simple act of sharing a cigarette is so intimate to a narrator who seems to be constantly wrestling with even the most basic emotions,ones that the world around him seems to tamp down. All through the record you can hear the music itself shadowing Schwarzenbach's solitary tensions. The slow drum fills on "Donatello" bring the propulsive speed of the song to jarring halts. "P.S. New York is Burning" with its strangely formed, minor-chord riffs and intricate drums feels dizzying and disorienting, so it's not a shock that "the distance, it seems so unreal."
In fact, it's that distance, both between people and between the individual and their own feelings, that frames Bivouac, and that Schwarzenbach explores so fully here, more than on the raw emotion of Unfun and more than on the concise attacks of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. The 10-minute closing title track is a slow trudge, a way to, after the rumbling "Parabola" reflect on how it can possibly be the world looks so big, the people in it so small, so kept apart from one another. And while it starts as rumination, as the attempt to find answers ("I dug my fingers in the dirt, I drew pictures of my pain"), its shadowy, thoughtful expanse, unravels into frustrated guitar squall and screaming, of a temporary space, of one between conflicts.
For all its searching, all its stretching out, there's an honest lack of discovery to Bivouac. It's questions have no answers, not satisfactory ones, not yet. But this album is the sound of a band taking all manner of tools to a wall -- big sounds, soft sounds, the quick and brash, the slow and muscled -- and waiting for it to reveal its cracks.
If there was sticking point with Bivouac, it was the strangely echo-heavy production of the record, which may have emphasized all that isolation but also made the record feel strangely canned in spots. However, a new reissue by Blackball Records cleans these songs up perfectly. They still buzz charmingly, bare their teeth and chug forward in all their unruly size, but they get cleaned up enough to get the production out of the way and see all the spacious work the instruments themselves do. The reissue also includes two great bonus tracks, the ever-shifting fury of "Peel It the Fuck Down" and the ringing, moody pop of "Ache." The label is also reissuing the Chesterfield King 12-inch, another great document from this era in Jawbreaker's history.
Bivouac draws a clear line to the darker moments of Dear You, and while it may not be as off-the-cuff as Unfun or as immediately catchy as 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, it still highlights Jawbreaker's best assets: the band's ambition (something not always rewarded in the punk-rock community) and brilliant knack for surprising compositions. You can argue all day about whether or not this is the best Jawbreaker album, but its harder to argue against the idea that this was their most daring work.