The Brilliance Behind Converge’s Unintelligible Lyrics

An examination of what the heaviest band in hardcore has actually been screaming about for all these years.

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Dec 23 2014, 6:50pm

Seriously, I can’t be the only one, right? Maybe I’m about to out myself as a total dad and lose all my punk points (™), but I rarely understand anything my favorite singers are saying. Recorded material, live sets—doesn’t matter. If a band is loud and abrasive, they could be singing and I would probably have no idea. This is especially true (and especially shameful) when it comes to one of hardcore’s most enduring bands: Converge. I mean, I’ve listened to Jane Doe over a hundred times at this point. I’ve thrown up my fist during half a dozen shows. I’ve even forced their music on countless annoyed friends. But 90 percent of the strange, guttural noises that emerge from singer/lyricist Jacob Bannon still sound more like primal war cries than actual human speech to me. In a weird way, it almost doesn’t matter. The unrequited anguish, directionless frustration, and relentless self-flagellation that make Converge so cathartic are communicated clearly in the delivery alone. Rather than serving as the focal point of each song, Bannon’s vocals often function as just another sonic element—more percussive and tonal than lyrical—allowing listeners to develop an emotional understanding of the material even without a precise knowledge of the words. Still, as a nerd with an English degree and too much free time, I decided to comb through Converge’s liner notes to decode some of that screaming and find out what I’d been missing this whole time. Below you’ll find some of my favorite lines from the band’s five most recent full-lengths, starting with Jane Doe, along with videos of each song so you can play along at home. Get ready to want a million ill-advised script tattoos!

"Concubine" - Jane Doe

“For I felt the greatest of winters coming/ And I saw you as seasons shifting from blue to grey/ That's where the coldest of these days await me/And distance lays her heavy head beside me/ There I'll stay gold, forever gold”

Tender, poetic... and definitely not in the actual song. No, seriously! If you check the liner notes, you’ll find a fully realized set of haunting, elegant lyrics, but if you listen closely to the recorded track, it’s pretty clear Bannon continually repeats just one line: “You stay gold/I’ll stay gold.” It’s a somewhat confusing incongruity, but at the same time, it’s eerily reminiscent of a moment most of us have experienced. If you’ve ever planned an eloquent, well-reasoned speech in your head only to feel too overwhelmed, too hurt, too emotional to spit it out when the time came, you can understand the brilliant trick Bannon is pulling here.

"The Broken Vow" - Jane Doe

“As tired and worn as it is/ I’ll take my love to the grave.”

Consider this Converge’s “I will survive” moment. Jane Doe is often considered a concept album, ostensibly detailing the deterioration and ultimate destruction of a single romantic relationship. Its songs painstakingly chronicle each stage in the process, from the excruciating loneliness of a loveless relationship to the complex, confusing hatred of a fiery breakup. That’s what makes this particular line so striking. It frames love as an act of defiance, a refusal to acquiesce in the face of seemingly insurmountable pain. Considering the content of the rest of the album, that’s a pretty powerful (if slightly over-dramatic) declaration.

"Jane Doe" - Jane Doe

“These floods of you are unforgiving/ Pushing past me, spilling through the banks/ And I fall”

This is it. The title track from their seminal album. As you might expect, it provides a dramatic denouement, synthesizing every disparate emotion left unresolved by the rest of the record. And these lines, perhaps more than any others on the album, hint at the root problem behind it all: our unconscious minds’ stubborn insistence on reopening old wounds. When you’re haunted by unwanted yet unavoidable thoughts of your ex, you pretty much have no choice but to write an album about. In Jacob Bannon’s case, that album was Jane Doe.

"Last Light" - You Fail Me

“I need you to be the strength of widows and soul survivors/ I need you to be as fearless as new mothers and new fathers/ I need you to be the hope of hearts who lost true love/I need you to be the might of their first kiss”

Jacob Bannon loves to wax poetic, so when his opaque elegies suddenly turn to simple, direct metaphors, it’s almost like your parents calling you by your full name: you stop, you notice, you listen. And when you do, you learn album opener “First Light/Last Light,” in contrast with its pummeling drums and driving guitars, is an incredibly hopeful song made all the more powerful by the fact that these are first words you hear after the emotional trainwreck of Jane Doe. It’s also worth noting each of these metaphors acknowledges (and in fact relies on) the strength of everyday human beings, which makes Bannon’s urgent admonishments that much more relatable.

"Heartache" - No Heroes

“Every word that you pray makes another slave/ Every idol that you build brings another plague/ Every cross that you bear grows another grave”

This song might be the single best justification for this article because, seriously, how could possibly understand what Bannon is singing here? Fortunately, when you take the time to look into it, you discover a passionate, searing indictment of organized religion. And rhetorically speaking, these lines have it all: structural repetition for added emphasis, a clever rhyme scheme, and the ever important “rule of threes,” which, in this case, naturally lends itself to escalating intensity. Plus, these lines create a pleasant symmetry with closing track “To the Lions,” which employs a similar structure: “This raging sea won't have you/This weary grave won't keep you/These tired arms won't hold you/As she closes her doors.”

"Vengeance" - No Heroes

“I am vengeance, built for war”

God damn, that is some seriously righteous fury. This line is some “Samuel L. Jackson in a Tarantino movie” shit. In case you missed it, this is what Bannon screams during the final vocal break, right before the world’s single most punishing double-kick part closes out the track. The line sounds a little overblown out of context, but the grit and sincerity of Bannon’s delivery definitely sells it. See also: “No Heroes”: “With hate and heartache/I'll strike you down/With rage and rapture/I’ll crush your crown.” Kind of gives you chills, doesn’t it?

"Axe to Fall" - Axe to Fall

“I need to learn to love me”

This line is all about context. The words themselves are simple, straightforward, and arguably pretty standard. I mean, how many times have you heard someone express this sentiment in real life? It’s become something of a feel good, new agey cliche at this point. But as the choral refrain in a massive, hard-hitting breakdown, this line takes on a radically different tone. Once you realize what he’s actually saying, Bannon’s delivery suddenly seems not brutal but helpless and desperate, painfully aware of a problem he’s incapable of fixing. It’s vulnerable, self-aware, and remarkably affecting.

"Slave Driver" - Axe to Fall

“I’ve sold myself to death for nothing at all”

In case the title didn’t give it away, “Slave Driver” is a scathing YouTube comment of a song calling out capitalism as a tool of economic oppression. What’s brilliant about this particular line, though, is that fact that it acknowledges both the practical and emotional impact of wage slavery. When you’re trapped in a never ending series of shitty jobs, you’re not only selling your time to make someone else rich while remaining impoverished yourself, you’re also cultivating a deep well of bitterness and self-hatred that will gradually eat you alive from the inside out. Okay, maybe I’m overstating that a bit, but you know what I mean.

"Tresspasses" - All We Love We Leave Behind

“Fate has no compass/ Fear has no driver/ What a cruel world clarity brings”

Realizing the world is not out to get you is actually a huge bummer. If you genuinely believe the universe is a cruel place, it’s pretty easy to see yourself as a valiant martyr whose every success is a triumphant over unfair odds and every failure is the result of some vague and sinister conspiracy. Once you accept that the world is unaware of and indifferent to your existence, that all goes out the window. Bannon found an elegant way to say all that in “Trespasses.” In a rare and welcome moment of optimism, though, he actually chooses to end the song on a positive note, singing: “Stayed up those nights to see/A new day rise in me.” You see that, kids? Embrace your agency!

"Empty on the Inside" - All We Love We Leave Behind

“I can't shake these beasts from my bones/ It's their rabid hunger that built me this home/ And it sickens me to say that this is the only way/ But if it hurts you, I know it must be true”

Once you’ve seen this with Bannon, “Empty on the Inside” develops a pretty clear meaning. In all likelihood, Bannon is trying to reconcile his emotional pain with the art his pain inspires him to create. In essence, the most positive part of his life is a direct product of the most negative, and worse still, if his pain even subsided, his artistic drive might wane as well. All in all, these lines provide a pretty heartbreaking insight into the band’s psyche.

"Glacial Pace" - All We Love We Leave Behind

“My love, reach out your arms and pull me close/ Let us tread in silence as their world drowns beneath”

You know, these lines are actually really sweet, in a gothy kind of way. But then you get to “Vicious Muse” and… “Name the demons overhead/The same names as old forgotten friends/To remind you that who you love/Will cut your throats in the end.” Sike, never mind, everything is terrible, and we’re all going to die alone HAH HAH HAH. Thanks a lot, Converge.

Scott Butterworth is on Twitter, looking up early Cave In lyrics - @butterwomp