A music review of Converge’s 2001 album Jane Doe

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 of 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 were once 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. This 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 undergoes a strange mutation, a reconfiguration of sorts. 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 passively “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” (Macbeth).

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 of significance.

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 is himself 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[1] of a social type.

And this is why the album must be left unrated. Converge cannot even be credited with its creation. Jane Doe is, essentially, an album that was written by no one.

/5


[1] In the double sense of hypostasis as both a reification of an abstract concept and the embodiment of one of the three hypostases or personalities of God.

18 thoughts on “A music review of Converge’s 2001 album Jane Doe

  1. A rather different blog entry for me. To be perfectly honest, I wrote this as a troll review for Sputnikmusic.com, in a deliberately baffling, Adornian-dialectical style. Still, it’s a record I’ve long disliked and to an even greater extent regarded as symptomatic of a broader tendency in recent culture. Anyway, this pretty much sums up my thoughts on the matter.

  2. i really wasn’t expecting this when you sent me your link! even though i personally quite like the record and therefore don’t share the same view, you definitely have a talent for writing. well done.

    • I dislike it for two main reasons, which are more or less separable. First of all, I really am not a fan of the incomprehensible screamed vocals, the erratic music and herky-jerky transitions. I understand that plenty of people are into this; I’m just not a fan. This really isn’t what the review is about, though.

      At the same time, however, I think what really sends me over the edge about this album is how many people tend to feel that they can “identify” with its content, a hopelessly banal tendency in the appreciation of recent music. Even here, though, the point isn’t whether I like the record or not, or whether I’m annoyed by their fans’ reactions to it. More important to me is what it says about the modern world and contemporary social life that albums like Jane Doe exist. I’m interested in examining Jane Doe as a mirroring a broader tendency in modern artistic creation, understanding it as expressive of a certain aspect of modern subjectivity.

      While I don’t think Converge are aware exactly why they’re doing it, the lyrics and overall mood of Jane Doe are so unintelligible in terms of its specificity and personal references that it becomes something onto which anyone can project their feelings and think that the album describes exactly what they’re going through.

      • While I do not agree with your review or thoughts on the band/album, I respect it as you are entitled to your own opinion just as I am!

        However I think the biggest problem at hand is that you are not a fan of incomprehensible screamed vocals, as quoted above. That to me makes the review slightly flawed as it would be the equivalent of me trying to justifiably review an album from the Beach Boys. No matter how well the album is produced, structured, or how interesting or lack thereof, I will not be able to have much or anything positive to say about the Beach Boys, since I’m just not a fan.

        However, still, I cannot blame a writer for not liking the style of music. You shouldn’t be forced to not write something simply since you do not like it.

        I think the point I’m trying to make is, for people who enjoy that sort of screamed out music, where the vocals are not vocals, but rather an additional instrument, I feel it’s not justifiable to say that the album lacks so much of an identity that anyone can relate to it based off the lack of direction the record has.

        I can relate to instrumental records sometimes far better than albums that carry lyrics, and in some ways I see Converge as both an instrumental band and a piece of poetry that is accompanying the music.

        Not sure if this helps or not, but I can relate to the album based off the chaos and emotion it brings to the table.

      • I understand your points, and am grateful to know that you respect my position, no matter how much we disagree. If I had based the review more around the music itself than the lyrics and Jane Doe‘s mode of presentation and public reception, it probably would have been just as negative, but for different reasons.

        While I wanted to comment specifically on this album, I also wanted what I was writing about to be more or generalizable, as I see it as embodying (even epitomizing) a broader tendency within the music, poetry, and art of the past few decades. “Personalism,” as I describe it in the review, is hardly confined to metalcore or screamo; indeed, it’s not even exclusive to music.

        Anyway, I’m glad you feel you can “relate” to this album based on the feelings and emotions it represents. Of course, I still believe that the reason you feel that you relate is because it’s a blank slate onto which you can project your own emotions, and claim these experiences as your own. And the reason I think it serves so well as a blank slate is because the lyrics are so particularized, so mired in detail and vaguely specific references to personal events or symbols that they ultimately lose all meaning outside of some supposed emotion of anger, despair, or regret that appears to stand behind them.

        Just my opinion, though.

  3. lol ur a moron. horrible attempt at sounding like your super educated. “A Music Review of…..” yea.. this is not a music review. you barely mention anything relating to the music, and try to dissect the lyrics and over analyze EVERYTHING. your puttin way to much meaning to some words

  4. For your consideration: “your Phoenix”, is possibly directed at the listener. An interpersonal imperative.

    Do you believe in Phoenix’s? For a while they thought that the Birds of Paradise were merely a legend, only later to be found in New Guinea.

    What about the Goblin Shark? I think the Angler Fish is pretty wild. Bioluminescence is weird stuff.

  5. harsh and pointless.
    i dont think its a matter of whether or not bannon gets his own concepts.
    I think YOU DONT UNDERSTAND THE ALBUM.
    therefore, you dont like it.
    fear of the unknown.

  6. Does not the the first line of phoenix in flight give a subtle indication as to where the “set your phoenix free line” is directed?
    “And i write this to you my dear” , and then the second line too, “for your eyes alone” ….
    I know its a little vague and cryptic from here as we appear to be no longer addressing her so directly,
    but the line “let her wings catch the sky”, and then in phoenix in flames the line “she burns as bright as the sun” seem to confirm what we are led to suspect from the beginning of this chapter, the phoenix is Jane Doe, a woman as you almost put it if you can grant me license to combine your sentiments “a woman so general that she could be anybody”.
    I don’t see how the phoenix could be anybody else except maybe Bannon. There’s perhaps not a lot on this record that’s directed at the listener converge do that more as they go on from this record, but there is the moment where it could be Bannon too with the line “let her turn to ash” as if he is the one bursting into flames and rising above it all or to put it another way “rising from the ashes”.
    Now this works, when your in a relationship breakup your supposed to be finding the strength to put it behind you and move on, rising above as it were. Its cryptic and hard to reach, but this is a good thing.

    I find the vagueness part of the explicit beauty of this record, like a David Lynch film there are levels to this record that the listener must never break and i know this to be true as jean Doe has been the finest thing i have ever heard for its nigh on 12 years my heart and soul lie with this record i have lived and breathed these songs and lyrics and ill never tire of it, ill never have enough, its unbreakable.
    What else brought me here tonight but listening to it again, i was caught out by this review at first its interesting that you should talk about how these words aren’t Bannon’s and threes the final passage……
    “And this is why the album must be left unrated. Converge cannot even be credited with its creation. Jane Doe is, essentially, an album that was written by no one.”
    Wow i didn’t even realize you didn’t like the record writing something like that because its true, no one owns Jane Doe nobody wrote these songs this album is alive these songs were expressed (cliche?) these songs were spewed forth from the dark place occupied by Bannon or simply “the guy in the record” or just “you and me”. these are experiences not creations.

    And a hell of a piece of music it is too.

  7. Hmm… a bit odd point of view, but still, very interesting review :) I’ve been browsing reviews about this album all week, trying to scavenge for more information as I think it is a very good album. If you were a fan of this type of music you will know why these hardcore kids dig it so much. It’s not the technically-aggressive parts, not the undecipherable screams, nor the catchy riffs, but the feel of it. The delivery, if you will. So much rage, grief, despair and fury…delivered all too well. If it wasn’t for THAT type of musicianship (mathcore/metalcore blah blah) it will just lose it’s value. It is meant to be preformed that way. Not to mention Jacob Bannon’s graphics. You should check his artwork out… Every metal/punk community praises and recognizes the Jane Doe cover as the Mona Lisa of Hardcore. As for the lyrics, personally, I’m not much of a fan x)

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