Andrew Jackson Jihad is perhaps this generation’s Neutral Milk Hotel, but with a twisted and often homicidal wit belonging only to Andrew Jackson Jihad. The Phoenix duo grew from its humble, acoustic folk-punk beginnings into a quirky, lo-fi indie-rock ensemble, and all for the better. Christmas Island is more polished and cohesive than the band’s previous work, but its stark lyricism is as deranged and head-turning as ever. It’s a welcome turning point for Andrew Jackson Jihad, and it’s the band’s strongest effort.
There’s a newfound swagger to Andrew Jackson Jihad’s dynamics. Christmas Island feels less like the insane ramblings of larger-than-life frontman Sean Bonnette and more like the collaborative effort of a group of musicians who somehow flourish in their dysfunction. In other words, the album’s keys, piano, acoustic and electric instruments coalesce to produce something lovably bizarre. The album’s louder rock could have appeared on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea; folksier stretches, meanwhile, defy what most might define as tasteful.
The most obtuse songs are also obviously self-aware, which is perfectly encapsulated by Bonnette’s admitting, “The older I get, the more articulate I am at whining.” Self-deprecation goes a step or two beyond common self-pity, to a realm where Bonnette doesn’t care much for flowery language.
Bonnette’s literary talent is nonetheless apparent and idiosyncratic. “Getting Naked, Playing With Guns” mentions McDonalds and Xbox in the same breath, using the two to compare early childhood experiences. “Do, Re, and Me” — set to a charming, cello-led folk tune — describes a comically gruesome scene. “Angel of Death” rattles off a litany of very odd but introspective metaphors; Bonnette relates to everything from a Total Gym to an outcast child named, specifically, Cody.
Christmas Island references singing cannibals, an obscure 90s power violence band, and a Nicolas Cage movie, among a myriad of imaginative images. On “Linda Ronstadt,” the band tries a bit too hard to associate the Arizona country-rock icon with past friends and repressed anxieties. But for the remainder of Christmas Island, pinpointed details and sharp quips evoke the clever wordplay of The Mountain Goats.
Andrew Jackson Jihad isn’t afraid to include Hank Williams-inspired honky tonk on Christmas Island, which speaks to the band’s lack of convention. Nothing is too weird for them, but this is far from satire; this is listenable indie rock with a personality that demands to be put in the foreground.
Christmas Island is available May 6 via SideOneDummy Records.
Review by Anthony Glaser