Looking back at the Long Island post-hardcore mavens’ complicated sophomore classic
Glassjaw has occupied different kinds of asymmetrical in-between spaces.
The Long Island band took in a melange of influences and then sent out signals of their own that touched other spheres. They spent half of the ‘90s gestating in the nearby New York hardcore scene, then came out swinging with two albums on two different notable record labels in little more than two years.
The second of those, Worship & Tribute, found a home at the very major label Warner Bros. Then, with all that momentum behind them, Glassjaw receded for reasons that included singer Daryl Palumbo’s ongoing health concerns, touring and recording intermittently but not putting out a third studio album until Material Control in 2017, fifteen years after Worship & Tribute.
Even though Glassjaw carried on in their unique way, Worship & Tribute still has hanging over it a question about what might have been. The album turned out to be something of an unintentional swan song for a time, but it should have been a jumping off point. Had they kept up at the same pace, the sound they might have landed on within the next year or two would have probably resembled not Material Control but an even more approachable version of the Glassjaw you hear on the singles “Cosmopolitan Blood Loss” and “Ape Dos Mil,” which was a completely viable commercial direction two decades ago. Worship & Tribute has outlived its time and place and continues to find new listeners, but the context and sidestream culture from which it sprang forth is still significant to understanding why it is the way it is.
VIDEO: Glassjaw “Cosmopolitan Blood Loss”
Emo was better at longing than it was at losing, better at wishing for love to arrive rather than wishing for love to come back. Second generation emocore of the mid-to-late ‘90s – Sunny Day Real Estate, the Promise Ring, Mineral, and so on – was adept at the former, but many of the bands that came up behind them and ran with the “emo” tag in the 2000s had an unhealthy fixation on the latter. Instead of singing songs that made you long for someone to feel that deeply about, they blurted out bitter scorn that made you realize that whoever left them probably made the right decision.
In 2003, writer Jessica Hopper called out this unfortunate shift in an essay for Punk Planet. “Records by a legion of romantically wronged boys suddenly lined the record store shelves,” she observed. “Every record was seemingly a concept album about a breakup, damning the girl on the other side.” Hopper’s sharp takedown of the scene, one in which women “are not identified beyond our absence, our shape drawn by the pain we’ve caused,” was not enough to actually take down the scene. But it did provide a necessary perspective on all these young dudes, one that should have made fans question what exactly they were shouting along with. It also made some older emocore fans wonder what had happened to the genre.
One of the stories around Glassjaw’s debut album, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence, is that producer Ross Robinson saw it as a chance to turn the tables on the nu metal machine that he had helped to unleash on the public only a few years before. That idea may have had a certain measure of merit from a stylistic standpoint, given that the band’s precision post-hardcore songwriting was smarter than the drop-D drudgery that had swallowed up what was left of MTV’s allotted airtime for actual music. On the other hand, Silence was every bit as misogynistic as all the Limp Bizkits out there, if not more. “Siberian Kiss” may have been indecipherable enough to get a pass from passing listeners, but there wasn’t enough breakneck riffing on “Lovebites and Razorblades” to mask that the lyrics were artless dreck.
Nu metal and new emo had more in common than either side would have probably liked to admit, and Glassjaw’s Silence spoke to that. In their 2007 scene send-up, Everybody Hurts: An Essential Guide to Emo Culture, co-authors Leslie Simon and Trevor Kelley included Silence in the book’s “Essential Emo Records 101” list, stating that “This is widely considered the first album to bridge the gap between emo, metal and poor taste.” Of course, emo, metal and poor taste were all very popular back then. Silence may ultimately be better off left behind, but Worship & Tribute made enough improvements to still work in the present day.
It’s clear from the opening blast of “Tip Your Bartender” as it then careened into “Mu Empire,” that Glassjaw’s funnel of inspirations had widened in the short time since the debut. The bits and pieces of touchstones like Converge and Deftones were still in the mix, but there was also a dose of the adrenaline melody and acrobatic enunciations of At the Drive-In, whose final album Relationship of Command had come out later in the same year as Silence. Relationship of Command was also produced by Ross Robinson, who had returned behind the boards for Worship & Tribute, so it’s no surprise that a tangible connection came through in the music.
The two singles, “Cosmopolitan Blood Loss” and “Ape Dos Mil,” come back-to-back after that fiery reintroduction, and still make a solid case for how catchy this strain of post-hardcore could get. The controlled aggression of the rhythm section, the low chords and high stabs of the guitars, it’s all there tightening the tension in the verses and releasing it in the shout-along choruses. The biggest leap here comes from the vocals, which bend plainspoken pronunciations in a way that sounds not unlike early Elvis Costello on no sleep and ten pots of coffee. It was a new-ish mode for Palumbo, and though newcomers might find it an acquired taste, it grew from distraction to distinction after a couple of listens.
VIDEO: Glassjaw “Ape Dos Mil”
Growth came through in the words as well. There are shared ideas among fans about what “Cosmopolitan Blood Loss” is about, but ultimately the lyrics are vague enough to keep them open to interpretation. A change in direction towards obfuscation was the right idea, and it lets the chant of “After all/After all/They let you decide” hit home without giving too-explicit instruction. It wasn’t poetry, but it wasn’t half bad.
“Ape Dos Mil” stood out even more. The song is a mid-tempo march that doesn’t strike a power chord until nearly a minute in. This was a level of restraint rarely before glimpsed from the group, and yet suddenly here it was, fully shaped into an MTV-ready single instead of a slow burn at the album’s back end. The song’s theme wades back into the wronged-boy muck, but a conclusion like “How could you heal if you don’t ease back the blame?” is almost startling in its insight given what it took Glassjaw to get there.
A winning formula becomes clear at this point in Worship & Tribute, that even a little bit of abstraction could go a long way for it. It’s too bad the videos for the songs didn’t follow suit. Instead, “Ape Dos Mil” presents a bitter boyfriend-gets-clowned portrait that’s too on-the-nose, while “Cosmopolitan Blood Loss” shows pointless male aggression (portrayed by the unfortunate choice of Vincent Gallo) climaxing in murder, not that any thought beyond “guns are dangerous, danger is cool” probably went into it. Another case of being of-the-times, but nowadays without any condemnation it comes off too close to validation. The saving grace of “Cosmopolitan Blood Loss” are the band shots, which showcase Palumbo’s curious way of screaming wide-eyed and bent over the ground.
“Must’ve Run All Day” and “Trailer Park Jesus” are further demonstrations of how easing off the gas pedal opened things up for Glassjaw, especially guitarists Justin Beck and Todd Weinstock, who on “Trailer Park Jesus” were allowed to go all spacey and soaring in search of a blowout anthem. The math-y intertwining of “Two Tabs of Mescaline” provides a compelling finale, enough to make you wonder what kind of instrumental album they could have made in a parallel universe.
It’s yet another what-might-have-been to consider about the high velocity trajectory of Glassjaw in their prime.