Though Andrew Jackson Jihad are an incredibly prolific group, their latest, Christmas Island, marks the band’s first studio release since 2011’s Knife Man. That uncharacteristic three-year gap, which included just a live album and a couple of brief compilation appearances, was partly due to a creative drought from frontman and chief songwriter Sean Bonnette. Experiencing “a battle of self-doubt that [he] eventually won,” Bonnette got out of that funk with help from producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Angel Olsen, The Mountain Goats), who gives Christmas Island a versatile shine.
Like Knife Man, which played around with genres and styles, Christmas Island is a fluid beast. “Kokopelli Face Tattoo”, an older song and live staple that is finally appearing on an album, is blasted with fuzzy guitars. “Do, Re, and Me” features a prominent cello, while “Deathlessness” is built upon a dramatic, almost psychedelic groove, and “Temple Grandin” has a freewheeling, off-the-cuff acoustic composition. But even when Andrew Jackson Jihad change their arrangements, be it from bare-bones upright bass and emphatic acoustic guitars to a full band with organs, mandolins, and strings, the tone never drastically changes.
That’s because when it comes to Andrew Jackson Jihad, what matters are the lyrics. Bonnette’s often absurd, always revealing songwriting is the lifeblood of the band. For Bonnette, the most mundane observations evoke the highest stakes — along with being another opportunity for a grotesque joke. “Children of God” features a searingly vivid image about eyes being as red as a shitting dog’s asshole, a line sure to be referenced in most reviews because it’s so ridiculous. Closer “Angel of Death” discusses being “a blank page in a notebook waiting to be filled with countless drawings of cocks.” Painting detailed, pop culture-heavy portraits, Bonnette loses his shit at a museum on “Linda Ronstadt” and dreams about “setting it off like Microsoft in ’94” on “Getting Naked, Playing With Guns”.
Whether it’s homesickness, grief over the death of his grandpa, life or death dilemmas of “what’s the fucking point?”, or jokes about Stevie Wonder and Helen Keller, Bonnette delivers on Christmas Island. As they’ve grown from the original duo of Bonnette and upright bassist Ben Gallaty to a full band, from Phoenix-DIY mainstays to tour headliners, Andrew Jackson Jihad are reaching the right balance, subtly maturing without losing the raw charm that fueled their last decade.
Essential Tracks: “Linda Ronstadt”, “Deathlessness”, and “Children of God”