Music Reviews
Christmas Island

Andrew Jackson Jihad Christmas Island

(Side One Dummy) Rating - 7/10

I wish I had more money than I had/I know that isn’t punk, but I’d like to pay my rent.” When Andrew Jackson Jihad’s singer/guitarist Sean Bonnette said this on their EP, Only God Can Judge Me, the band was still little more than a scrappy folk-punk duo (Bonnette and upright bassist Ben Gallaty) bashing out 2-minute hyper-sincere, hyper sarcastic ditties solely on wooded instruments. The Phoenix-based duo’s shows would largely be held standing outside their trusty van, they’d address themes of murder and self-deprecation in their songs with the same playfulness as a song about kitty cats, and most of their early tracks utilized the same four chords in different order. Needless to say, the idea of AJJ “selling out” at this point in their career (though unlikely) seemed way more threatening to the band's “punk” integrity at the time, and Bonnette delivers the line in the stark Candle In the Wind as more of a deep-seeded confessional rather than an ironic comment on the meaninglessness of selling out in today’s music landscape.

Written by today’s AJJ, however, that line would probably fit more firmly with the latter interpretation. Since 2009’s brilliantly twisted and seething Can’t Maintain and 2011’s pop-punk-leaning Knife Man, Andrew Jackson Jihad have made many decisions that would make most bands look like they’re reaching for a bigger audience – they’ve expanded to a bigger line-up, included a much wider range of instrumentation and song styles, and they’re no longer afraid of breaching the 3-minute mark for half an album’s tracks. Bonnette even entertains using distortion and power chords from time to time! But despite the fact that I purchased my copy of Knife Man at my local Hot Topic almost three years ago, the idea of the band banking in on a newfound mainstream audience seems just as ludicrous as it did before they plugged in their instruments, as the band's undeniable punk spirit – laid by Bonnette’s shrill, almost spastic vocals and deranged-yet-poignant lyrics – remain firmly intact. And while the band’s latest, Christmas Island, might be their most accessible album to date, AJJ still keep these qualities intact, remaining the loathe-‘em or worship-‘em kind of act they’ve always been.

Admittedly, Christmas Island is probably the least punk “sounding” album Andrew Jackson Jihad has made yet by conventional standards (the average person on the street would firmly qualify it as “indie rock”), but this hardly holds the album back. Pushing even further away from the three/four chord formula that’s been apparent on each AJJ release to some degree, Christmas Island exhibits the most diversity in songwriting and production of any of the band’s albums. Almost every track features some sort of embellishment, whether it be the lush strings on Coffin Dance or the fuzzed out guitars reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel, but with a few exceptions, these embellishments are used sparingly and with finesse, much like with The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee. It’s also worth mentioning how incredibly catchy this collection of songs is, with obvious standouts being Temple Grandin and Kokopelli Face Tattoo, which might be the band’s closest approach to a pure fuzz pop gem, even with Bonnette’s lyrics approximating himself to a “sexy little viper” and a “restaurant toilet.”

As good as the music is, however, it’s no secret that Bonnette’s lyrics are the band’s true draw, which traditionally vary from incredibly revealing and plainspoken to totally outlandish and ridiculous, and rivals only Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus for the crown of most heavily self-deprecating lyricist in indie rock. But while Bonnette’s unique lyrical quality has always been a mainstay throughout Andrew Jackson Jihad’s discography, things get a little shakier on Christmas Island. Don’t get me wrong, the lyrics are undeniably the work of this band, and many of Bonnette’s trademarks, from bluntly-spoken musings (“But I’m trying really hard to not hate you / Hating you won’t make you suck any less”), to random, enthusiastic references (“Bad Lieutenant 2 is the greatest movie ever”), to shining a light on the barbaric things humans do (“Getting naked, playing with guns / there’s a gerbil in the microwave, a baseball bat, and everyone”), are still highly prevalent. And as far as detailed storytelling goes, Bonnette goes all out throughout the album, painting the lives of characters in songs like Angel of Death with many unique details, citing specifically that a kid who’s “probably named Cody” with Kool-Aid stains on his lips likes to hang out in the abandoned house behind the Arby’s, just so we know.

But while much of the whimsy, imagination, and everyman revelations characteristic of Andrew Jackson Jihad’s lyrics are more than abundant, there’s a key dimension to the group’s lyricism that feels glaringly absent through much of Christmas Island. Whether he is referencing real-life events like his father’s abandonment or just going off on his thoughts on humanity and ripping off Woody Guthrie, Bonnette’s lyrics have always held a very personal, expressive touch to them, and the direct, no-bullshit way he often delivers them have always brought forth an open diary sense of confidentiality, or at least that of a whiskey-fueled manifesto scribbled on a napkin.

On Christmas Island, however, we rarely get the intensely personal touch from Bonnette’s lyrics that were so prevalent on each past release, instead focusing on vivid, absurd imagery and more distanced storytelling. There are exceptions to this, namely the memorable Linda Ronstadt, where Bonnette describes losing his shit” in a museum and gaining the courage to face the world after viewing a video installation of the country singer, but on most tracks, like Temple Grandin and single Children of God, we are given a laundry list of exaggerated, highly-AJJ images (a sky filled with teeth, a vampire hunter, a bowl of angel hearts being eaten by children, etc.), but there is very little attempt to make sense of it all in a concise, personal context we’re used to getting from them. It’s true that a band can only write about the same topics for so long, and it is nice to see Bonnette taking his lyrical approach in a new direction, but the lack of that intensely personal touch unfortunately makes the songs on Christmas Island far less relatable than the band's past catalogue.