Key Tracks: “Temple Grandin” “Children of God”
When you think Andrew Jackson Jihad, “cryptic” isn’t quite the word that comes to mind. Their lyrics are puzzling, but far too direct to be “cryptic.” This is the band that once posed, “When a pregnant woman gets decapitated, does the baby survive?” But on their new full-length, “Christmas Island,” the band is a little more thought-provoking. They expand on folk-punk, embracing a bigger sound and lyrics that are even more unconventional. “Christmas Island” isn’t AJJ’s best album, but it takes the better parts of their two best albums and finally combines them into one.
Andrew Jackson Jihad’s best albums are probably their ’07 debut, “People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World,” and 2011’s “Knife Man.” The two albums really aren’t that similar, but “Christmas Island” aims to bridge the gap. It largely succeeds, as they expand their acoustic sound without getting too self-indulgent in electric rhythms. A vast majority of “Christmas Island” is acoustic, aimed less at energy than it is at poetry. Although the band is still aimed at devastating, almost demented poetry, they turn their focus back towards stripped down elements.
“Christmas Island” benefits from having flow, something that has hindered AJJ’s past albums. While their past albums have been wholly stellar, they often lacked any sort of narrative flow, often opting instead for shocking and abrasive lyrics. “Christmas Island” lets some some songs take a backseat for others, knowing which pack the biggest emotional punches. Opener “Temple Grandin” is a fight against autism, channeling the autism research hero. “Best Friend” is steeply poetic and existential, while “Angel of Death” is just as randomly self-deprecating as their earlier music.
Folk-punk is a genre that doesn’t ask much from a musical standpoint, but Andrew Jackson Jihad focus a little more on an expanded sound on this album. There are more instruments, often including piano and strings into the songs. And the songs are a little more rounded, instead of just the guitar attacks of the past. And there’s more slower songs, helping the album feel a little more complete. “Christmas Island” shows hints at maturity. There’s more diversity in the music, and more depth in the lyrics. They’ve always been a weird and unsettling band, but the lyrics on “Christmas Island” are so staunchly self-indulgent that Noisey had the band explain them. The album is peppered with lines like “eyes as red as a dog’s asshole when you see it shitting” (“Children of God”) and “I am the Kool-Aid on the mouth of a kid whose name is most likely Cody” (“Angel of Death”), which also mentions the Slap-Chop and their own Salad Glove. This is definitely AJJ’s most puzzling album yet, even if it ‘feels’ a little more mature.
So “Christmas Island” is both a step forward and a step back. They’ve re-embraced acoustic music – the only electric song is “Kokopelli Face Tattoo,” right in the album’s middle – while broadening it into a fuller sound. And they’ve deepened their lyrics, so they aren’t as aggressively violent and perverse, while still keeping them demented and inquisitive. “Christmas Island” suffers from a few too many cooled down songs (they are a punk band, after all), but it’s the right step forward for a band whose formula was growing a little tired. I’ve written about seeing AJJ before, and although “Christmas Island” doesn’t quite stand up to their best works, it’s easy to give it the benefit of the doubt. It’s one that will leave you just as puzzled and frightened as anything they’ve done before.
If you like this, try: the only band I can ever recommend in the same breath as AJJ, check out Defiance, Ohio’s 2006 album “The Great Depression.” The band’s best album perfectly balances screaming and singing over hyper-folk-punk, acoustic music.
-By Andrew McNally