In the mid-1980s San Francisco’s once burgeoning punk scene fell into disarray.
Several of the area’s clubs shutdown and the highly influential Dead Kennedys members were on their last legs. In this wake, the Gilman Street Project was founded, which gave the Bay Area something to be excited about. Bands such as Operation Ivy and Isocracy formed and fell apart almost instantaneously, but one band proved they could lead the scene into the next decade.
Jawbreaker formed in New York City in 1988, consisting of vocalist/guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach, bassist Chris Bauermeister and drummer Adam Pfhaler. They relocated to San Francisco and became the definitive Bay Area punk band. By mixing pop sensibilities with D.C. hardcore outfits such as Rites of Spring and Embrace, Jawbreaker was able to forge a sound unlike any of its contemporaries.
Jawbreaker’s debut album Unfun was recorded in Venice, Cal. in early 1990 and released on Shredder Records. The album’s opening track “Want” is one of best opening tracks on any album. Bauermeister’s infectious bass line stands in stark contrast to Schwarzenbach’s raspy vocal delivery. Lyrically “Want” displays Schwarzenbach’s penchant for literary influence, something he’s carried throughout his career.
The simplistic chorus of “Want” is juxtaposed next to verses straight out of someone’s most emotional diary entries. Couplets such as, “I’m lying naked at your feet/Don’t crush the heart that beats/Take me at my word/It may sound absurd” abound on Unfun, with each one perky, memorable and perhaps all too relatable.
Unfun’s next track proves that Schwarzenbach is capable of doing more than pontificating about romanticism. “Seethruskin” is one of the fastest songs on Unfun and is an indictment of racism and its ever-apparent acceptance in society. Avoiding the punk rock cliché of merely spouting off slogans, “Seethruskin” stands as one of the most powerful anthems to ever address the topic of racial prejudice, with lyrics such as, “Born without a choice of race/Held to blame and put in place/See through the skin/And look at all that lies within.”
Aside from discussing social injustice, Schwarzenbach attacks the punk community. While punk rock’s hypocrisy was a topic that would become well-tread ground during Jawbreaker’s existence, Unfun’s “Incomplete” directs its attack toward overly aggressive hardcore fans by means of bouncy pop-punk. Schwarzenbach’s acerbic nature is carefully executed to avoid a self-righteous or arrogant rant.
Although Jawbreaker continued to explore harsher social critiques throughout the band’s career, the members are remembered as the godfathers of modern emo. Emo isa term that gets thrown around all too often, and unknown to the masses, it was once a term of endearment. It was a pure release of emotion with no pretension when executed with precision, and it often walked a line between self-aggrandizement and utter self-loathing.
The appearance of “Wound” late in the album’s sequencing exemplifies why Jawbreaker and Schwarzenbach are pegged as being one of emo’s early elite. “Tried to squeeze my eyes/And scrape up my skin/There’s a hole in my head/Where the bullet went in,” opens the song and is anguish personified. Schwarzenbach’s lighting fast delivery coupled his gruff growl could easily overpower these lyrics, but he refuses to let his disenchantment be ignored as he continues, “Feel my burning rash/Old scabs on my back/Deep red welts/From hating myself.” His voice exudes suffering and leaves nothing to the imagination. Every line reeks of urgency and is undeniably genuine.
Although Schwarzenbach is now considered a cult hero, thanks in large part to his lyrics, it is the work of Jawbreaker’s rhythm section that set them apart from all the rest. By grooving their way through even the fastest of tempos they never resigned to merely playing according to simplistic punk archetypes. Without Bauermeister and Pfaler holding down the back beat and creating memorable rhythms, Jawbreaker’s influence on punk wouldn’t be nearly as notable.
While each subsequent album shows that Jawbreaker’s progression it is Unfun that galvanizes a scene. It’s a perfect twelve-song debut from one of punk rock’s most important acts. It’s unfortunate that the major label debut Dear You would simultaneously dissolve the band and ostracize them from the community it helped foster. However, Unfun will always exist, championing how beautiful a simple punk album can be.