Rarely does an album come along that, through a thorough exploration of a single event, produces a generalizable work of art that speaks on a common aspect of the human condition. To repeat the above sentence in a less pretentious manner, I feel the best albums are those that focus on a specific personal experience but isolate something that is general and applicable to all of our lives. This is what Jane Doe, the 2001 album by the band Converge, achieves in my opinion. A key reason for writing this review is that I feel there is a severe misunderstanding among the average music listener that will prevent them from appreciating this album. Even if one can stomach just how abrasive and aggressive the album is, the message of the album, so far as I have discerned one, may be difficult for many to understand. So, I am writing this piece as an analysis of the album but also as a guide to those who seek to make sense of it.
To begin any story a brief introduction is necessary. Converge was and still is a band that combines elements of hardcore punk with metal. To those well versed in metals many subgenres you may know this is “metalcore” but I wish to avoid the term as it has become a loaded term for trash-tier screaming metal. It would be false though to say that Converge is one of the progenitors of the subgenre, and hence much of the trash-tier bands I allude to earlier have their roots at least partially in Converge.
In the late 1990s Converge vocalist Jacob Bannon was coming off of a messy breakup with his then-girlfriend. This fact I feel is very important, as it offers a structure to understand the album and the lyrics (which fully wrote himself). However, I know how this can colour people’s perceptions negatively just like the word “metalcore”. Like I said earlier, those personal events that are well explored to extract a universal message are the heart of many good albums. To call Jane Doe merely a “breakup album” I feel misses the point, for while it is specifically about a breakup, it is more generally about anger. It is an exploration of the theme of anger that I feel makes Jane Doe an exceptional album.
Before we can analyse the album, I wish to address one of the most salient features of the album to those unaccustomed to hardcore punk and its metal-influenced counterparts. The screaming. Almost all of the lyrics are screamed in such a shrill and intense manner as to make the lyrics literally incomprehensible. Why would someone do this? Imagine the following: you are angry about a person who cut you off in traffic (or almost cut you down crossing the road). Regardless of what you would say to the person who did this to you, imagine how you would say it. It would be loud, yes, it would be filled with anger, but the words would probably come out of your mouth clearly. Now imagine saying that same response, but angrier. Your pitch shifts higher and the words become slightly less clear for most of us. Now continue this experiment, increasing the anger in your voice steadily. You will eventually find yourself screaming in a high-pitched manner similar to the way Jacob Bannon screams on Jane Doe. The idea behind screamed vocals, so far as I see it, is to speak/sing at an emotional state where words can’t even come out. It is a feature of the emotional content of the music you wish to express. While you could speak or sing in a clear voice this doesn’t capture the external representation of what you are saying. In short, screaming is internal emotions externalized, and by extension, the growl I feel is more of an internal framing of the same emotional content.
But of course, the issue with screaming is what to make of the lyrics? I would argue, to understand the essential properties of Jane Doe we don’t need to know the lyrics. I say this for two reasons. First, I feel the sonic content should be sufficient to infer a meaning since music is more than words. All pieces of the song should work in unison to express what the artists envision. But far more importantly, if you have the ear to make out what Jacob is screaming, you will know he isn’t screaming the lyrics he actually wrote. When comparing the lyrics released as a booklet with the album they do not match up with what is coming out of his mouth. For this reason, I feel the real message of the song is in the sonic content and not the meaning of the lyrics. The lyrics may supplement the message but I feel they are not intended to be understood with the songs themselves.
As one last disclaimer before we discuss the album, it should be said that my writing will not be as logical as I normally try to be. I don’t feel what is being said in Jane Doe necessarily follows a strong logical framework. There is a clear progression, yes, but not an internal structure to each song that lends itself to the written word. This should be the case, for if the album’s complete meaning could be easily stated in a few sentences, why didn’t Converge just write a book? As a result of this, my explanations will be nebulous, imprecise and definitely pretentious in the eyes of many. Nonetheless, I see no better way at getting what Jane Doe is getting at. Without further ado, let’s begin:
To understand the album, we must first know where we are coming from to understand where we are going. I conceptualize Concubine as a reaction. Some utterance (whatever officially ended the relationship) proceeds 0:00 of the song, and since hitting play we have the externalization of both the immediate thought process and the internal emotional reaction. A slight pause before processing that which is spoken, then quickly a ramping up in emotion. Finally, upon the introduction of the vocals, our initial reaction is present. Note how opening scream feels devoid of a word, a phrase. It seems non-communicative, lacking thought, simply expressing externalized negativity. This is complimented by the instrumentation being reduced to noise. The immediate result of our building emotions expresses itself in incoherence because there is no idea to be expressed, it is purely reactionary. From first verse onwards, we have a dynamic assemblage of styles present throughout the piece. There is a reduction in heaviness (albeit, for a matter of seconds) seems reflective of a mind working, thinking, trying to apply that pre-album utterance to some schema, searching for some idea that could be galvanized not merely as a response but as a way of making sense of the situation. This endeavour is either quickly resolved or quickly breaks down. The result is a return to the heavy, screaming, noisy style first seen after our initial build. We slow things down for one last time near the end of the track to indicate perhaps many things. Do we return to contemplation? Has another force excreted itself within our protagonist’s mind, an emotional reaction or defensive behaviour being activated? What is clear is that our character will proceed into a level of wrath that has no parallel even on this album.
Fault and Fracture
Fault and Fracture begins with a build as well, but carrying forward the momentum of Concubine, it reaches a new maximum of anger while also developing a sense of stability. The confusion, contemplation, and uncertainty in Concubine is gone as soon as the first verse begins, at which point a structural and systematic kind of anger presents itself. The structural and rhythmic nature of the rage makes it far more unsettling than the incoherent screams and breakdowns of Concubine. The drumming expresses a kind of one-two punching motion, a kind of mindless beating against a helpless victim. The descending guitar line gives the illusion of catharsis, but after each descent, the next verse begins at the same level of energy as the verse that preceded it. No anger has been eliminated, it is simply forth. However, the beat itself feels insufficient to capture the full extent of the violence, like the protagonists’ fists, cannot swing fast enough to accommodate the quantity of anger. The one-two motion is carried forward the majority of the track, yet once the time signature changes we see a new build. No longer engaged the violence the anger builds to a new height like a pot about to boil over. Catharsis in reverse. When the vocalist returns the coherence is there but quickly deteriorating. Unable to maintain control, the anger is flailing, clawing, trying to escape any way it can. The only problem is now there is more rage than was even present at the beginning of the song. It leaves in disorganized and erratic motions as if the character was internally collapsing from the pressure. The very end is what I feel is best described as a “pop!”
Distance and meaning
Interpreting Distance and Meaning has always been difficult for me. It is turbulent but tame, more than a simmer but less than a boil. Complex in character, it feels more hostile than conversation yet more restrained than a fight. An internal discourse feels to be taking place, but there are far more views than two. They bounce back and forth, crash and smashing into one another. The mind is racing. The vocals are restricted yet feel as if they are spitting venom, venom that becomes violence in the screamed portions. “Distance” implies that the discussion may be with our protagonist alone (away from “Jane”) and “meaning” may indicate an attempt to contextualize the events that came before. Near the end, we get a familiar build followed by a sharp screeching collapse of a conclusion. Whatever productive effort went into this contemplation, its only answer is more wrath, more rage. But at the same time, there is an acknowledgment of this failure. A voice cries out, the clearest vocals heard so far on the track. Reason has failed. The anger prevails. And perhaps, they know it.
Hell To Pay
Now, we have finally calmed down. The anger is still with us, but it is no longer active in the sense that the previous tracks communicate. Here we have a simmering anger, a person stewing on negativity. Every so often it bubbles up, but by and large there is almost a sense of clarity, a sense of control. This illusion is what is so captivating about Hell to Pay. The anger before feels present yet emasculated. No longer the raving madness of the previous tracks, it is now simply sitting down for a moment. It feels as if we can speak to it, as if it can be reasoned with and put to rest in some way. None of this is true. This state, like the song itself, is merely an interlude. Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. the show will be beginning shortly.
A homewrecker is usually the individual blamed for ending a relationship, usually for infidelity. As an idea it is straightforward, it has no nuance because it requires none. Thou who breaks the vows takest the blame. While Homewrecker starts off with power, it is far more orderly than anything which came before it. It is mad without madness. There is no real loose ends, no complex crashes. Everything is in its right place. It almost feels as though, through giving a simple context to the anger, as a simple explanation, the anger has been subdued. However, this vessel seems incapable of holding what boils up to become a bubbling cauldron at the end. The anger builds once again, ending on lonesome scream. Something failed. The ride carries on.
The Broken Vow
As I said before, homewrecker and vow breaker are interchangeable terms. What then is the purpose of The Broken Vow if not redundancy? Not quite an antithesis to Homewrecker, it is nonetheless an immense departure in form. Those lines of slicing lyrics and static base fade into a rising and collapsing guitar line as the vocals shout out into the wilderness and a discussion of sorts forms between the main vocalist and the backup. It is exceptionally messy, mellow but chaotic. There is something that limits the bubbling anger, something that dulls the scream, something that slows the tempo. Sadness, for the first time, takes center stage. The feeling of hurt dominates The Broken Vow. While it has its time to shine, sadness never fully has the stage to itself. Anger quickly sucks the disparate ideas in like a whirlpool. All voices synchronize, the beat pulses tribally. They reinforce, build, become one? The interplay occurs and then ends. The consequences, unclear.
Click here for part 2 [coming soon]