Review Summary: "A tale told by the idiot Jacob Bannon, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Converge’s 2001 record Jane Doe
is, more than anything else, a symptom
. A symptom, of course, is a surface phenomenon that points to its derivation out of something deeper – something that lies at its root, concealed from view. It is the manifestation of that which remains latent. As such, it is the expression of another thing, distinct from itself, of which it is an unwitting reflex, purely epiphenomenal
But in its very superficiality, Jane Doe
simulates profundity. The illusion that results is, in fact, so perfect as to disguise its origin even from itself
, lost in the night of its own paramnesia. Jacob Bannon might be the one singing on the record, but make no mistake: the words are not his own. In truth, they are words written by no one. Words that are the product a thoroughly impersonal
dynamic, generated by a mindless web of relations that inscribes itself into the consciousness of a human vessel – a human vessel which for it is nothing more than a mouthpiece, a means for expression.
In other words, Bannon is the puppet of forces beyond his comprehension. He dances to a tune that was not of his own making. Nor was this tune the making of any other member of Converge. His frenetic flailing during their songs is the enactment of a total powerlessness, the involuntary spasm of a marionette.
Very well, a symptom – but if so, a symptom of what
Put simply, Jane Doe
is a symptom of the fetishization of the personal itself, or to be more precise, of the unmistakable personalism
that characterizes so much of the art and music of the last few decades. That is to say, it emerges out of the general cult of the “personal” that has arisen in recent years. Converge’s most celebrated project thrives on the same elements that all personalist art and music does: self-referentiality, a heavy reliance on personal symbolism, the exact meaning of which is available to no one outside of the author – indeed, an entire mythology belonging only to a single individual, the likes of which William Blake could have only dreamed.
To be sure, Jane Doe
’s most obscure symbolism is that which attempts to transfigure the mythologies that once were common property to all, “imbuing” them with personal meaning. The two-part sequence of “Phoenix in Flight” and “Phoenix in Flames” invokes that old Coptic legend about the mythic creature that is reborn out of the very flames that consume it. Certainly, the symbol has been used often enough by lyric poets through the ages. But Bannon adds a twist. “Set your phoenix to flight,” he commands. “Your” phoenix? What could this possibly mean? Surely its meaning is privy only to the author himself, or perhaps also to the “person” to whom the phoenix belonged. The must allude to some private experience Bannon had that carried such personal
significance as to “move” him to reference it in a song released to the public.
This is hardly an isolated instance in the album. In a song called, appropriately enough, “Distance and Meaning,” the following lyrics appear: “Like the years we burned down/I heard that phone call/The hesitation, the awkward silence/I felt everything in those seconds
.” Bannon makes no attempt to elucidate the contents of this conversation, either by lyrical hints or other poetic devices. It recalls a phone conversation between two people, wrapped in all the vagueness that comes with a memory exalted by an author as particularly significant. Again, however, the meaning is Bannon’s sole property; he presents it to his audience as an empty cipher.
Herein lies the key to the personalism underpinning every moment of Converge’s Jane Doe
. By signifying nothing, its authors seem to signify everything. Bannon presents concrete symbols torn from their context. Lyrics describing particular events are removed from the personal experiences for which they possess significance and displayed as raw artifacts, unsullied by explanation. The irreducibly personal
quality this produces far from alienates its listeners, however. On the contrary, listeners delight in speculating about the “deep” personal meaning all these events must have.
At this point, though, the album’s effect undergoes a strange mutation. For it is by the seemingly individual
nature of these experiences that they are transmuted into something that appears as a universal
experience – something that is “shared by everyone.” These feelings he describes as embodied in particular objects and moments are surely things that “we’ve all felt before.” The specificity of its meaning is generalized by virtue of its detachment from a greater public realm of meaning. All the concrete cases he describes are abstracted from his experiences and thereby become something in which we can all abstractly participate. Bannon’s lyrics become something to which we can all “relate.”
This abstractness is reflected in the abstract layers of fuzz and noise into which everything determinate is dissolved. Individual notes are either lost in the drone of an open D or are absurdly accentuated. The time signature changes throughout “Concubine” and “Fault and Fracture” are cynically calculated to convey desperation or anger. To this, Bannon’s empty screams parody themselves, the ghosts of their own auto-affection. They simultaneously mask and lay bare “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Shakespeare).
It is therefore no coincidence that Bannon gave the name “Jane Doe” to his ex-lover, after whom the album is eponymously titled. Jane Doe
expresses the utter generality of this woman. She could be anyone. And this is the central paradox of the album: though she is certainly the one to whom so many personal, particular meanings are attached, she is no one in particular
. Her ultimate facelessness is illustrated on the album cover by the half-silhouette of her face disintegrating into locusts at the bottom. This more broadly signifies the disintegration of meaning that underlies the personalism of the album. Its significance is precisely the loss
Another implication of this (a point that has hitherto eluded reviewers of this album) is that as much as Jane Doe
is meant to be the story of one person, of Jacob Bannon, it becomes anyone’s story. Bannon himself is a sort of John Doe. In the final analysis, he is a stand-in, a catchall, a placeholder. His individual persona is elevated into the hypostasis
of a social type.
And this is why the album must be rated a 1. Converge cannot even be credited with its creation. Jane Doe
is, essentially, an album that was written by no one.