The context: Jawbreaker's 1990 debut, Unfun, hinted at post-punk fury lurking beneath a poppier exterior, but the band fully indulged its abrasive, cerebral tendencies on 1992's Bivouac. At the time, Jawbreaker was still a new band exploring its sound, and Bivouac finds the group looking to the Washington, D.C., and Midwestern post-punk scenes for inspiration: angular rhythms, propulsive bass, noisy guitars, and a pronounced dark streak. Jawbreaker all but abandoned Bivouac's sound on 1994's 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, a far poppier, more straightforward record that fans now regard as a classic. Bivouac's darkness reappeared, to a lesser degree, on its 1995 major-label debut, Dear You, but the group never replicated Bivouac's creative ambition.
The greatness: The key to Bivouac lies in the songwriting dynamic of guitarist-vocalist Blake Schwarzenbach, bassist Chris Bauermeister, and drummer Adam Pfahler. All three sound equally invested in the songwriting; Bauermeister's intricate basslines—the climax of "Big," "Face Down," "Parabola," and "Bivouac"—practically make the album. But that dynamic faded as Jawbreaker grew more popular and a cult of personality grew around Schwarzenbach. By Dear You, Jawbreaker had become his band. Of course, Schwarzenbach's cult of personality started for a reason, in large part due to his lyrics. He once said that Jawbreaker songs "are born out of desperation," and the lyrics' intensity reflects that. Unsurprisingly, a million shitty emo bands have emulated them, but all have lacked Schwarzenbach's deft touch and thematic complexity.
Defining song: Fans typically choose "Chesterfield King" (a charming boy-loses-girl-then-gets-girl story-song) as the album's best track. Though it's fantastically catchy and it's became one of Jawbreaker's most beloved songs, it's an aberration here. "Big" best captures Bivouac's spirit: melodic but complex, forceful but restrained, with a hooky, bass-fueled finale. That crescendo parts the clouds before the album's sunniest moment—"Chesterfield King"— arrives. Then Bivouac darkens. By the time the title track—a 10-minute, feedback-laden punch in the gut—closes the album, Jawbreaker sounds thoroughly exhausted. No wonder 24 Hour Revenge Therapy was so straightforward.