Last year, beloved pop-punk trio Jawbreaker stepped onstage for the first time in more than 20 years to headline the final night of Chicago’s Riot Fest. It was the preliminary step in a long-dreamt-of reunion that will finally reach Portland for two nights this week. There’s even chatter of new music being hashed out by the group. It’s the kind of news that should warm every sensitive soul who used quotes from “Accident Prone” and “Kiss the Bottle” as the status message on their AIM accounts (“I kissed the bottle/I should have been kissing you”).
Jawbreaker originally existed for about a decade in the late ’80s and ’90s. Formed by three NYU students—guitarist/vocalist Blake Schwarzenbach, drummer Adam Pfahler, and bassist Chris Bauermeister—the band picked up a head of steam upon relocating to California, falling in with the punk scenes in LA and the Bay Area through their ragged and complex tunes. What drew the kids in were Schwarzenbach’s lyrics detailing his frustration with snobby scenesters and his romantic failings. No matter how petty or deeply felt the concern, he expressed everything with a full-throated bellow and thoughtfully chosen words.
Momentum and buzz for the band built through the ’90s, thanks to their growing strength as songwriters (their four-year evolution from the tuneful yet wobbly debut Unfun to the punchy, unrelenting drive of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy still feels remarkable) and led to the band getting swept up in the post-Nevermind major label spending spree. The resulting DGC album Dear You was Jawbreaker’s finest hour, a high-def display of broken hearts and embittered spirits. But many of their hardcore fans rejected it for its clean sound and Schwarzenbach’s more measured singing. Within the band, relationships were already tenuous, and the chilly reception to the album didn’t help. Jawbreaker split in 1996.
The timing was both awful and perfect: The trio missed out on pop-punk’s platinum-selling reign and the rise of emo-pop outfits like Jimmy Eat World and Fall Out Boy. And their post-Jawbreaker work, especially Schwarzenbach’s more tempered, but still powerful group Jets to Brazil, was generally dismissed. At the same time, many of the bands that arrived in Jawbreaker’s wake name-checked them frequently, and a cult surrounding the group—and the potential reconciliation of its members—grew as a result. So much so that a gaggle of kids from New York named their band Jawbreaker Reunion as a jokey way to attract attention to their rickety twee-punk.
Now that Jawbreaker is finally returning to Portland, it feels strangely anticlimactic. Could it have something to do with the many gigs they’ve already played, including stops in Seattle and Olympia? Or could it be an aftereffect of our hype-driven age that’s more concerned about what’s happening right now? (Charging $50 for tickets certainly isn’t helping their cause.) Will any of it matter once the jangly chords of “Boxcar” hit fans in the chest at the Crystal Ballroom? Not on your life.