15 years on, Converge’s intensely personal Jane Doe remains a hardcore triumph

You know, it only dawned on me this morning as I was walking to work that if you stroll up Camden Street in Dublin and happen to glance in the right doorway, there’s a painting hanging in the entrance to a restaurant that looks an awful lot like the cover of Converge‘s now 15-year-old tour de force Jane Doe.

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The iconic shade-eyed outline of a woman’s face over a textured background has shown up in more places than you’d care to believe the front of an early 00’s metalcore record ever would – most noteably of late in the form of this little Jeremy Corbyn t-shirt. It’s one of those album covers like Sonic Youth’s Goo or Guns N’Roses’ Appetite for Destruction that has taken on a life of its own over the years and popped up in the weirdest contexts at the strangest times.

As iconic as that artwork is, it’s only part of the story of why Jane Doe, a decade and a half later, is still regarded as something of a classic. Long story short; if you’ve somehow never heard what venerable metal magazine Decibel voted “the best  record of the 00s”, Converge are a Massachusets-based band whose brand of enjoyable but far from mindblowing metallic hardcore had been building in popularity since their origins in the early 90s, following in the path of other forward thinking underground riff mongers you won’t have given a shite about like Deadguy and Rorschach, all blazing speed, metallic riffs, sore throated vocals and occasional dips into more atmospheric passages.

Jane Doe marked their fourth album, and the one on which the band spread their tentacles musically in more varied directions, certainly, but it was more importantly one where their assorted non-linear influences truly meshed into a language of their own for the first time, and where the emotional content of their music matched that of vocalist Jacob Bannon’s poetic lyrics perfectly. In short, it was the point where everything fell into place.

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Jacob Bannon in ‘quiet reflection’ mode

Bear with me on this: there’s a strong argument for Jane Doe being the Nevermind of the Carharrts and combats set, but perhaps not for the reason you think. Sure, it seems to have been a record that not only broke the band, but one that somehow reached outside the confines of the underground network the band had been confined to prior. Metal kids certainly were eager to adapt to this “new” heavy sound and the heartbroken nature of the lyrics roped in some of those losing interest in the then-still-a-thing emo scene, but I’ve met more than one post record loving indie kid or techno head over the years whose go-to heavy album is this one.

Why? Well, because much like Nevermind, the music press absolutely loved Jane Doe, which helped get it into the faces of folks who would never maybe have encountered it otherwise. They still do, in no uncertain terms, from Zero Tolerance magazine to Pitchfork 15 years later. It’s important to note that Jane Doe didn’t exactly come out of a vacuum. Converge have always been as inspired by their peers as they have inspired those around them – Bannon was last seen sporting a Hatred Surge shirt at a Dublin show if I remember correctly – and it would be utterly fucking dumb to think that wasn’t the case at this point in their career.

While they had established to this point a recognisable enough sound, their prior work was possibly a little lacking in spark. Jane Doe showcased a band with a wider imagination, with perhaps a better grip on their place in what was at the turn of the century a pretty interesting and evolving underground scene.

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The band have been quite open about their friends in the Hydra Head Records milieu (Isis, Cave In, etc) having an influence, though that’s more in terms of the overall depth of vision some of those bands had than sonics per se; though the opening guitar lines of ‘Distance and Meaning’ hint a little too strongly at Botch for comfort. However, in retrospect it’s hard not to speculate as to whether, like seemingly everyone else who played in a band who mixed hardcore and metal in the late 90s/early 00s, the late, great His Hero Is Gone didn’t have a say. Certainly the raw but huge production (that bass sound!!) and some of the speedier moments would suggest that someone somewhere might have been impressed with that band’s Monuments to Thieves from four years earlier.

Right, let’s just rip the fucking band aid off and get to the big, open wound shall we? One of the real reasons Jane Doe is held up as exemplary is that above all else, it’s a break-up record. This was unique territory for a band of this kind at the time. Furthermore, even as break-up records go, Jane Doe is amongst the most powerful diaries of the hopelessness that comes with having your heart utterly and totally broken I’ve encountered in any genre let alone the emotionally-stunted testosterone minefield that is metallic hardcore.

This thing is a time capsule of actual pain, a document of what I imagine was an especially rough point in Bannon’s life and I’m genuinely curious how he feels about it now. This is the kind genuine, dull ache of sadness Jimmy Ruffin captured in ‘What Becomes Of the Broken Hearted’ , or when Dusty Springfield confessed ‘I Just Don’t know What To Do With Myself’, somehow successfully applied to, of all things, a hardcore album.

I have bled and I have given
The longest of rivers and the longest of ropes
And you’re not grasping and my light is sinking on the horizon” – 
‘Homewrecker’

That. Right there. That devastating realisation that things are over, and you are permanently outside of someone’s life, and that sense of not really knowing how to rebuild your own. That’s what Jane Doe is about and does so well. It’s a record about unreciprocated need and how hard that is to deal with. The finesse at the heart of the lashing out is what Converge – or more specifically Jacob Bannon – nailed in a way that very few have. This music was born out of a real sense of hurt, frustration and desperation rather than simply being another fast, shouty record for kids to throw themselves around to. It’s not just in the lyrics or the vocals, it’s in the music. And more importantly it’s in the structure.

Yeah, Jane Doe is – or should I say nearly is (we’re getting to the “but..” bit in a minute) a masterclass in how to sequence record of this kind; the bull in a china shop section that runs from the high throttle one-two of opening bombshell ‘Concubine’ and ‘Fault and Fracture’ into the slightly less frantic but equally feral ‘Distance and Meaning’ is positively murderous.

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But it’s what happens after that, when they slip earlier than you’d have expected into the introspection of the bass-driven ‘Hell to Pay’ that the rug comes out from under you more than any flurry of blast beats. It’s clear that they don’t want you to get too comfortable. It’s clear that much like the situation described in the lyrics, moods can and will change without warning. There’s no constant, no real refuge. So when they pick up again for the run of more up-tempo tunes with ‘Homewrecker’ (which as an aside might be the best if not only hardcore song to feature a cowbell so prominently) through to ‘Heaven in Her Arms’, you’re not really sure what’s going to happen.

Trust me, I realise how stupid that sounds to those of you not familiar with the genre, but this kind of metal-driven hardcore is often, to put it kindly, somewhat one dimensional. There wasn’t a huge amount of variation in the style at the time that didn’t rely on either randomly chucking in a quiet bit every now and then or maybe throwing in a slow part. Jane Doe’s middle third is the point where they return to their perhaps more traditional fare, but even at their most pummeling they’ll blindside you with an unexpected bout of melancholic melody which will somehow sit perfectly next to a one chord bludgeon (check out ‘The Broken Vow’ for proof). You can’t tell where they’re taking you.

Many of their peers would have either made an album full of rampaging speed or gone down the more progressive, rythmically complex route of the aforementioned HH mob. Converge did both, often at the same time. And for the next 10 to 15 years, entire bands were formed based solely on the four songs in the middle of Jane Doe. They’re still forming now. And they’re still not getting it right.

It’s unfortunate then though, that while on paper the final third wherein the boyos branch out into stranger territory is where it kinda comes off the rails a little. ‘Phoenix in Flight’ is a droning, heavy-hearted piece of atmospherics that is the saddest moment musically on the album – Bannon’s clean vocals sound weary over the riff-based nocturne beneath. ‘Phoenix in Flames’, meanwhile, is the polar opposite, the breaking point for everything where it all descends into boombox recorded noise core blasting. The combination of the two back-to-back is jarring in the best possible way.

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As for the coda… well, there’s no other way to say it – ‘Thaw’ is a mess. It’s unclear if the lads actually wrote this song or just found an unreleased Today Is The Day track, changed the vocals and released it under their name, but if I were Steve Austin I’d have been considering suing for plagiarism such is the blatant similarity to that band’s otherwise singular sound. The title track, after all that, sadly peters out, though it peters out with a fine closing section that ends not on an expected note of redemption, but on a sour point that much like real life doesn’t have a happy-ever-after.
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Strangely for the fact that these are the four weakest songs on an album full of hooks in places that shouldn’t have them, this final triumph of mood over quality is kind of allowable. Because as a whole, start to finish, if we’re looking at the album as an arc tracing the emotional horror of having a relationship collapse, the seemingly random and disparate moods reflected in this sequence, from sadness to rage to a final numbness, feels very real. As someone who’s still very much struggling with the aftermath of a relationship almost as old as this album falling apart in my own life, trust me when I say that.

Jane Doe was one of those rare points where a band take a musical form that’s often viewed as something adolescent at best (metal infused hardcore punk in this case – though to the untrained ear it probably just sounds like metal), and turn it into something grown up. This was hardcore for adults, an intensely personal vision executed almost perfectly. For all the hype, for the fact that… fuck it, this isn’t even the best Converge album (that’ll be the following You Fail Me which basically took this template and improved upon it with better songs), Jane Doe is still a remarkably fresh and genuinely stirring listen 15 years later in a genre which is often based on impermanence.