Review Summary: Despite its inacessible nature, Jane Doe has managed to touch the hearts of many listeners.
Despite their abrasive and inaccessible sound, Converge has garnered a huge and fanatical following during their 20 active years in the hardcore community. In 2001, Converge released their breakthrough album, Jane Doe. The album's lyrical (and seemingly, musical) themes were, in lead singer Jacob Bannon's own words, “(…) born out of a dissolving relationship and the emotional fallout from that experience“. Many to this day consider it Converge's magnum opus and a classic in the underground hardcore scene. But does Jane Doe really
deserve to be called a classic album, in the truest sense of the word? How
has it managed to touch the hearts of so many listeners, despite its inaccessible nature? In this review I will seek to answer these questions.
Firstly, no one can deny the instrumental talent of the band. Possessing a guitarist fond of weird harmonies, and unconventional riffs in Kurt Ballou, an excellent drummer with original style and complete mastery over poly-rhythms in Ben Koller, and a great bassist in Nate Newton, Converge has created a musical landscape that relays a distinct emotional idea rather than a conventional hardcore performance. Converge has also really nailed focused, effective songwriting, and each song revolves around only a few different riffs and musical ideas. Though the music is chaotic in its nature, nothing ever feels disjointed or random; the musical flow is natural and organic. Joining in are Jacob Bannon's ethereal vocals, which are really quite unlike anything I've ever heard. While certainly being an acquired taste, Jane Doe wouldn't be what it is without his unintelligible shrieks and brief, pleading singing, as their focus on conveying emotion rather than enunciation further enhance the instrumental work, more so than any more traditional vocal performance would have done. With the exception of a few fragmented lines of the album's lyrics that remain intelligible in Bannon's frightful performance, the overwhelming message of bleakness, anger and despair is brilliantly - and violently - delivered with sheer musical expression in a manner unheard before this album.
This leads me on to the second thing that makes this album what it is; its small booklet of beautiful lyrics and artwork to complement the wordless musical assault. Since one can't really tell if they match what is being said on the record, the lyrics can be seen as a complimentary reading experience to enhance the already expressive music; one poem for each song. Together with these poems, Bannon created one piece of visual art for each song. Using a colour scheme of mostly black, white and dark orange, unsettling images of seductive, black-eyed female faces stare out of each page and give further insight into what might have been going on in Bannon's mind at the time of their creation. Jane Doe is a complete piece of art, just as much a reading and visual experience as it is a cohesive piece of music.
But the third, and greatest facet of the album is one that might not be readily apparent; its emotional impact. The album needs to be taken in a few times as a whole before this dimension of it starts to open up, but I think it is what contributes the most to why such an inaccessible album has been gripping all kinds of listeners. The album is perfectly structured, using tension and release to really affect the emotional state of the listener. The slow and sorrowfully soaring Phoenix In Flight
’s crescendo before unleashing Phoenix in Flames
, an insane burst of a track with only drums and shrieked vocals, comes to mind as a prime example of the more obvious contrasts. The initial outburst of Concubine
and Fault And Fracture
make way for frustrated dissonance and huge walls of chords in the disjointed Distance And Meaning
before allowing some breathing room with the brooding moodiness of Hell To Pay
. Always pushing the listener into different emotional states, the musical roller-coaster prevents the various emotions dealt with from getting stale, and really contributes to making the album's message felt. Jane Doe keeps building towards its monumental 11 minute closer and title track Jane Doe
- an absolute masterpiece -, that perfectly summarizes and brings closure to what the listener already has experienced... until its quiet coda suddenly erupts into Jane Doe's final climax, Bannon's last shrieks hauntingly echoing over the instrumentals that keep building and building, only to fade out into frustrated nothingness... Finishing the album the first time after having grasped what it is all about is an awe inspiring experience, which cannot be described with words. Jane Doe's message is viscerally delivered in a way that doesn't need
words, and once it hits home, it will never be forgotten. That is how powerful this piece of art is.
The biggest problem for newcomers is how ugly the powerful piece of art is, though. The album was not written with commercial gain in mind, but rather for the challenge and the satisfaction of the musicians themselves, and critics of Jane Doe sometimes write it off as just being “random noise”. However, while not structured like traditional songs in the sense of returning choruses and verses, the songs are neither random nor complicated in structure. So what the difficulty really lies in is becoming accustomed to the abrasive and chaotic sounds the musicians produce. It can also be difficult to hear that the songs actually have a solid rhythmical foundation in Ben Koller's poly-rhythmic drumming, as he sometimes seemingly is all over his kit at once. Once one's ears are accustomed it becomes easier to pick out what's going on in each song and on the album at large, though. And I think that is part of it's depth and appeal too. Jane Doe is not shallow entertainment but a challenging and unsettling piece of art that is immensely rewarding for the people that grasp it, and there is always something new to discover each time it is experienced.
In conclusion, the reasons why Jane Doe, despite its abrasiveness and inaccessibility, still has been embraced and appreciated by so many, are clear. Created by a band that focuses on creating art instead of commercial success, it holds no bars in conveying its emotional ideas through innovative, unconventional instrumentals. Together with its beautifully written lyrics and unsettling artwork, the tension and release created by the album's brilliant structure really contributes to making Jane Doe's message felt; it is a complete piece of art with the sole purpose of expressing the emotional fallout from the experience of losing of a loved one - the perfect concept album. Though the album is ugly and chaotic in nature, it still speaks in a visceral manner unheard before its creation, and it is a truly awe inspiring experience. Thanks to all this, Jane Doe has gripped the hearts of numerous listeners and firmly secured its spot as one of the most gripping pieces of music created the last decade. And that is why Jane Doe is a classic album.