A fine first step in what could be a whole new direction for the band formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad.
Long known for its skewed, comedic folk-punk, Phoenix’s AJJ seems ready to grow up with its latest release, the provocatively titled The Bible 2. From the album’s opening moments, vocalist and principle songwriter Sean Bonnette makes it clear this will not be the usual AJJ album. “When I was a kid my whole reality split/ I was living a lie,” he sings on “Cody’s Theme.” For a band whose previous album titles include People That Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World and Only God Can Judge Me, this is a sobering opening statement. Going on to chronicle a host of ostensibly autobiographical experiences, Bonnette sets a tone and recurring thematic motif of youth, growing up and embracing one’s own path.
Of course, bands like AJJ don’t just decide to grow up overnight, and The Bible 2, while a slightly more lyrically mature album, retains the irreverent spirit for which the band formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad has long been known. The band continues to refine its idiosyncratic brand of hook-laden oddball folk-punk, crafting an album full of earworms loaded with absurdist lyrical couplets that obscure an introspective depth hiding just beneath.
Like a less narratively dense Mountain Goats, Bonnette has a penchant for seemingly nonsensical lyrics enmeshed in a series of pure lo-fi pop songs in miniature. With an equally strained and anguished collection of vocal ticks, Bonnette often sounds like John Darnielle’s nonsensical poetry-spouting little brother–“Small Red Boy” and “When I’m a Dead Boy” in particular could pass for early Mountain Goats. Borrowing elements of Neutral Milk Hotel’s hallucinatory imagery, it’s a combination at once familiar and accessible for those who prefer their indie rock lo-fi.
Yet The Bible 2 refines the group’s lo-fi aesthetic, incorporating a broader sonic and stylistic arsenal to create a more sprawling sound. Crafting tightly-wound indie pop rock that calls to mind as many like-minded lo fi-worshippers as it doesn’t, they manage to ape their influences while furthering their own brand of musical and lyrical eccentricity.
Much of the latter is due to Bonnette’s unwavering penchant for the absurd, relying on seemingly tossed off lyrical couplets that often prove deceptively insightful. “And if you don’t want to feel the feeling/ No one should ever make you feel the feeling,” he sings on “White Worms.” “Some dumb dick says, “Don’t stop believing”/ You can stop believing,” he spits, succinctly summing up the long-simmering antipathy and disgust of several generations towards a certain optimist’s overwrought, over-played power ballad.
“I’m a hallucination of myself at three years old,” he sings on “Goodbye Oh Goodbye,” harkening back to opening track “Cody’s Theme” and its opening lyric. This dichotomy of self-perception lies at the heart of Bonnette’s lyrical explorations on The Bible 2. Much like the band’s name change, these moments represent a reevaluation of self as he matures and leaves his more juvenile proclivities behind in favor or something more insightful, if not necessarily politically correct or wholly mature. “You knew what you were and you couldn’t stand it,” he admonishes himself on “Golden Eagle.” “You loved your country enough to support it/ But nothing ever made you complete.”
There are a handful of overly cloying couplets: “The waiting room was pissing in my ear/ So we went and bought ourselves a can of beer,” from “Junkie Church,” may particularly test the listener’s patience. But Bonnette is just as likely to follow these with a deceptively effecting turn of phrase on the same song: ”I love coz I love you coz I can.” It’s a love-it-or-hate-it style that will no doubt alienate some listeners, but no more so than any of its previous albums. If anything, The Bible 2 is AJJ’s stab at accessibility.
Pop culture plays a pivotal role in Bonnette’s processing of the modern world. “If I were one of the Girls/ I would be Shoshanna,” he concludes before going on to describe her as being “Confused and rude/ Such a special kind of way to be cruel.” It’s one of a host of pop cultural references that crop up to describe something very specific. “Some days you’re a member of Queen/ Other days you’re a Kottonmouth King/ Some days you’re Emilio Estevez/ Other days you’re Charlie Sheen,” he posits on “Terrifyer.” This kind of lyrical insight helps elevate AJJ above its myriad anti-folk-punk peers.
Despite its aims at broader appeal, The Bible 2 won’t necessarily ingratiate the newly-minted AJJ to new fans. While this move away from the prurient, subversive and juvenile may well anger some long-time devotees, the band’s move into a more introspective, poetic direction is one for the better. It’s is a fine first step in what could be a whole new direction for the band formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad.