The Phoenix folk-punk outfit formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad have spent the last several years turning the page on their past and burying skeletons that no longer resemble the bodies they once wore. This started with 2014’s Christmas Island, an album that frontman Sean Bonnette wrestled into existence after an extended creative drought left him intimately acquainted with his demons. Though not drastically different from the band’s previous material, Christmas Island felt like a new chapter in their long and rocky career. For one, Bonnette’s lyrics had never been stronger, which is to say they had never been quite so personal. In the span of a decade, the songwriter had transformed from an anti-P.C. punk comedian who sang about killing women and laughing at retards to one of the scene’s preeminent poets, a guy who could squeeze heartbreaking poignancy out of a video installation of Linda Ronstadt.
The band also went through changes, both in make-up (adding a couple of permanent members) and aesthetics (officially changing their name from Andrew Jackson Jihad to the simple acronym AJJ). The latter decision seems more significant, if only because it reflects Bonnette’s desire to distance himself from his past and repent for the sins of his youth. He admitted as much in an interview with the A.V. Club after the name change. “The act of striving and trying to do better is a constant theme in our work,” he said. “I don’t really feel like playing in the band that I started when I was 18. I’d rather preserve the stuff that I like about it, change it to my liking, and then I can keep moving forward.”
The cheekily named The Bible 2 is AJJ’s sixth studio album and their latest attempt to keep moving forward, though the results will sound comfortingly familiar to those who have followed the band from the beginning. The album’s mantra, which appears on the cover and as the title of the centerpiece piano ballad, is “No More Shame, No More Fear, No More Dread”. It seems like a self-conscious echo of 2007’s “No More Tears”, a song similarly obsessed with acknowledging the world’s hideousness and attempting to build a fragile wall against it. Though the message is the same, Bonnette sounds less sure of himself this time around, staring out of “baggy eyes that see a garbage world/ Forever hideous, forever purposeless, forever worthless.”
Nobody does hopeful hopelessness quite so convincingly as AJJ, and Bonnette’s on-again, off-again relationship with nihilism makes a title like The BIble 2 more fitting than it initially appears. These lyrics ache for the kind of assurance that only religion can provide, though they see too clearly through the world’s bullshit to subscribe to Christianity in its traditional form. What Bonnette finds instead is a religion of garbage — both literal and cultural, the detritus of a consumption-obsessed civilization that can’t get enough sequels and has gorged itself on false platitudes. “Some dumb dick says ‘Don’t Stop Believin’,” he sings on “White Worms”, presumably referring to Journey’s Steve Perry. His own message is different, though: “You can stop believin’.” It’s perhaps the most cynical rallying cry ever set to record, but it almost feels uplifting based on the mass-produced emotion it’s rejecting.
Elsewhere on The Bible 2, Bonnette embraces the comforts of garbage culture. On the aptly named “American Garbage”, a song that’s powered by a mishmash of new wave synths and psychedelic guitars, he sings, “If I was one of the Girls, I would be Shoshana,” his tone falling somewhere between desperation and disgust. The album’s rollicking opening track, “Cody’s Theme”, mirrors this same movement toward conformity and implied acceptance. While a guitar plays along through a blown-out speaker, Bonnette tells a story about a child whose imagination and base impulses are systematically squashed out by authority figures. “I had to talk to the teacher/ She talked to my mom/ They made the visions stop.” Whether this is a good or bad thing remains ambiguous; as Bonnette makes clear early and often on The Bible 2, sanity comes with a high price.
AJJ may be evolving into a more interesting band musically — the string arrangements on lead single “Goodbye, Oh Goodbye” and the more subdued “Small Red Boy” are impressive — but the lyrics and themes will always be the most compelling aspect of their work. They’re what allow a song like “Goodbye, Oh Goodbye” to seem both cheerful and woefully cynical at once, and they make the jokey video for that song seem even more outrageous in retrospect. Bonnette and his ragtag gang of musicians have learned a thing or two from standing on the edge of the abyss for this long, but no matter how long or how deep they stare, it’s nice to know they still have a shred of humor left in their bitter souls.
Essential Tracks: “American Garbage”, “No More Shame, No More Fear, No More Dread”, and “White Worms”