There’s a certain level of goodness that makes things hard to talk about, and maybe even harder to fully digest. There’s the very good, where perfection is attained and you’re left with the rather dull prospect of pounding out what sounds like hyperbole for four to six paragraphs. There’s very bad, that while more fun to write, is often a dedication of time and energy to describe something you most likely never cared about in the first place. And then, there is the pretty good– the okay– which leaves you sorting through tracks looking for the exact moment a listenable album just didn’t do enough to make you love it.
It’s never fun to write the latter. Because, for me, it oftentimes becomes a chronicle of when one of your favorite bands ceases to be your favorite. You all know the Frost line, “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” That’s how it always goes. A great band doesn’t just turn in an album that wrecks your appreciation of them in one mighty display of incompetence, usually it’s a simpler and subtle deviation from the roots that made you love them in the first place. Against Me! was one of those bands for me. Where I loved the first three, really liked the fourth, uncomfortably liked the fifth, and then Transgender Dysphoria Blues came out and finally solidified my alienation: this band isn’t mine anymore. And it wasn’t. But it wasn’t a bad record either, it just wasn’t for me. That was my whimper– no satisfying bang of hatred and confusion, just a whine and a “move along, folks, nothing to see here.”
AJJ (formerly Andrew Jackson Jihad) was my band for awhile. I remember watching videos of them with buddies, cringing and laughing aloud at some of their more cutting lyrics. They were an introduction into a punk I didn’t know existed. Watching them play on trains, on sidewalks, and wherever else they could was watching someone make good on all the promises punk made. People Who Can Eat People…, Can’t Maintain, and my favorite, Knife Man became veritable classics for me and my close group of friends. It just clicked.
And then Christmas Island came out and I liked most of it. It came burdened with production choices I couldn’t quite jump on board with, along with an increasing diminishing of their folk punk early days. But still, this was my band, damnit! I loved them still, and I met them halfway and ended up finding a bunch of songs I really dug.
And now, we have The Bible 2– a continuation of latter-day AJJ as much as it is a rebranding– packaged with the same codifying authority as a self-titled record. It calls in a deep booming voice: “Behold ye mighty and despair, we were Andrew Jackson Jihad, but now we are AJJ.” The new name comes with a new identity and it wouldn’t even be unfair to call this a first album by a new band. And while, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the band would welcome this consideration, the similarities and love of what once was might be too hard to shake for some listeners.
This problem rears its head immediately, as a lot of The Bible 2’s faults are holdovers from Christmas Island. The vocal distortion effects are present, and they once again open the album with a fast punk track covered in them. “Cody’s Theme” (name checking the “kid who is most-likely named Cody” from “Angel of Death”– further solidifies the kinship between Christmas Island and The Bible 2) throws some synth melodies in too, but isn’t catchy or specific enough (save for the chorus, which I like decently enough) to form an attachment to.
And the thing is, everything is still there. Nothing has quite changed enough to say that they have turned their backs to their roots or have decided to go soft to get love from the kids. I believe the decisions they made were made in earnest. AJJ has a different focus than Andrew Jackson Jihad, and it maintains elements of the latter, but diminishes others. The greatest example is The Bible 2’s mission statement, detailed in the song title: “No More Shame, No More Fear, No More Dread.” They’ve switched gears into something vaguely positive and inspirational, like Christian rock for misfits. Of course, it is most likely agnostic and probably irreligious, but it carries the same sense of affirmation. No More Shame, No More Fear, No More Dread is the YOLO for teenagers who feel like they don’t belong.
If I’m being fair though, I have to admit that Sean Bonnette’s lyricism has grown on this album (while the more cynical part of me would say it has simply changed, politely excluding for better or for worse). Christmas Island was mostly decent, but it showed a trend of Bonnette giving into some of his worst tendencies as a songwriter, leaning hard on non-sequitur lists and free association surrealism. The Bible 2 feels more personal and focused overall, even adhering pretty well to its own themes, where Christmas Island felt a little scattered and less cohesive than the epic concept album that was Knife Man.
And, despite my whimpers, there are some great lyrics across The Bible 2, and some of the best songs here are the best AJJ has ever written. “Goodbye, Oh Goodbye” is one of its catchiest, and its bridge has one of my favorite lines across the album. “7th grade was hard enough/ Someone thought that they knew me/ If I stay in bed long enough/ They’ll go to church without me.” It’s packed with honest pathos and relatable imagery, while continuing the album’s themes of childhood, and how childhood experience forms us.
This theme is established early on in “Cody’s Theme,” but is brought to a satisfying conclusion with “Small Red Boy.” On it, Bonnette describes cutting a “small red boy” out of his stomach and uses it as a metaphor for the worst parts of all of us, and how they define, destroy, and ultimately provide us with beauty. Reading through the lyrics, while listening to its rumbling crescendo, it would be hard to believe that AJJ has or will ever write a better song.
And that’s what makes The Bible 2 disappointing in some respects. Where “Small Red Boy” is the AJJ I want, the one that I get is weighed down with forgettable songs and unpalatable effects. The best compliment I ever heard the band get was from one of my friends. He said, “Listening to them makes me uneasy.” That’s the AJJ I want, the band that finds beauty in destitution and depravity, that takes long unbroken gazes into the eyes of families on the verge of breaking, on the emotional collateral damage that’ll splatter brains across floral print wallpaper. This is the band that wrote, “Backpack,” a song that you’d probably choose to skip more times than not– and it might still be your favorite off Knife Man. Horror writer Jack Ketchum wrote this essay on violence in fiction, and it boiled down to the idea that as a writer, you shouldn’t “look away.” Violence is real and it is awful, and doing anything less than presenting it and everything it touches does it a disservice. Looking away makes it too easy, it makes it not real. The Bible 2 doesn’t share the same obsession with with transgression that made me fell in love with the band, it dips its toes every once and awhile, but it doesn’t want to tell us how drowning people’s lungs fill with water– it wants to pull them out of the ocean. I think both are valid. But, its not what I want to hear. Which brings us around to an uncomfortable truth worthy of the band at their most gnarly: maybe I’m not the audience anymore. They switched gears and I’m left wanting something they’re not really that interested in anymore. The album is chock-full of their new perspective and direction and the themes of rebirth and perseverance are enough to say that the move was intentional. Like after years of negativity and bullshit, someone just said, “Enough, enough, enough. This is no way to live.” Then one of them grabbed a self-help book, tried to find religion, and then did their best to reconcile it all with who they are and what they know. There’s still a lot to like, even if its not what I wanted. But for me, it’s summed up as follows: AJJ was a band that didn’t look away. And on The Bible 2, they sometimes still don’t.