Andrew Jackson Jihad’s music bleeds humanity. Behind the whimsy, surrealism, and self loathing there is an undeniable sense of empathy– their art is made by people, for people, no matter how fucked up they happen to be. Its this unique voice that defines AJJ as possibly the most subversive band working in punk today. At their lightest they can make you laugh and at their heaviest be confrontational enough to make your skin crawl.
Knife Man was one of my favorite albums of 2011, and on it I felt like Andrew Jackson Jihad managed to take their sound into new places while delivering some of the most heart-wrenching songs they’ve ever sang. It was cohesive and connective and more than a little cathartic by the time the last song faded out. Christmas Island follows in this vein with refinements to their sound and an ultimately tighter experience.
The opening song “Temple Grandin” reappropriates the ‘to the bullshit’ trope and makes it an anthem for perseverance, strength, and kindness. On it, the band lays the sonic template out for the majority of Christmas Island— more acoustic guitar, more instruments, and more effects. “Temple Grandin” contains a spacey air to it, almost psychedelic. While its not an aesthetic I generally seek out, the song is better for it, providing a sonic texture for the isolation autism activist Temple Grandin had to fight against, while simultaneously alluding to the sensory overload associated with the disease.
“Children of God” provides some of Andrew Jackson Jihad’s surrealist humor with its chorus, “And the blood collector collected blood and the cannibals all sang: tra la la la la la la la lay.” “Do Re Me” showcases some of their melodic chops along with my favorite lyrical aside (“Man is the Bastard is a brutal fucking band.”). “Kokopelli Face Tattoo,” a song that appeared on their live album and pops up here again given the proper studio treatment. It might be the most traditionally punk song on the entire album, with a defiant, backhanded ‘fuck you’ of a chorus.
Idiosyncrasy rules the day for the best art and the artists behind them. Andrew Jackson Jihad is no different. They pull their heroes from unlikely places and make them a cohesive part of their work. What else do Linda Ronstadt and Temple Grandin have in common besides both getting songs on Christmas Island? Andrew Jackson Jihad fills their albums with these deeply personal flourishes, but the fact that the end result can be so cohesive is a minor miracle. Imagery is repeated, ideas are expanded over the course of songs, and events are told from different perspective; Christmas Island is a concept album that doesn’t need to be called a concept album to feel good about itself.
“Angel of Death” is one of the best endings to a record I’ve ever heard. Melancholy organs guide the song through the experience of Cody, a kid who’s “parents hate each other,” before changing perspective to something broader and more omniscient. When I say Andrew Jackson Jihad is a subversive, irreverent band, I mean it. They back up my claim with aplomb in their ending of Christmas Island. Some bands would labor over the deepest, most thoughtful way to end their record; white, viscous self-importance dripping from their mouth. AJJ throws out the rule book and make a silly pop culture reference (“Prepare to die, Bad Lieutenant 2 is the greatest movie ever!”) after line after line of polemic metaphor. And fucking shit, it works. It makes a statement and its a powerful one; as if the band were to reach past the barrier of their art and say, “You know what, at the end of the day, we’re all human and this is just a song. Enjoy life.”
Christmas Island further codifies the wide boundaries of Andrew Jackson Jihad’s sound and might just be their best record to date. With heart and humor to spare, the band transforms affliction and despair into something beautiful and pure. The song “Linda Ronstadt” said it better than I ever could: “I can’t handle astounding works of beauty, I think I like my pretty pretty ugly.”