Album Review: Christmas Island by Andrew Jackson Jihad
by Gino Fanelli | published Nov. 7th, 2014
While writing lyrics for Andrew Jackson Jihad's fifth studio album "Christmas Island," lead singer and guitarist Sean Bonnette was suffering from a high fever which spurred vicious nightmares and existential crisis that served as basis for much of the album's content—and it shows. "Christmas Island" is a demented, surreal venture into boundless waters of self-loathing, cynicism, fear and, somehow, a relentless sense of humor that echoes through every track.
Following 2011's "Knife Man," which is sprinkled with bits of self-deprecation and a trademark pessimistic view of the world, "Christmas Island" revels in taking this aesthetic to an extreme. Opening with "Temple Grandin" and the line "Open up your murder eyes and see the ugly world that spat you out," set atop a ringing acoustic guitar and fuzzy synthesizers, Bonnette takes no pause before throwing the listener headfirst into a cluster-fuck of crushing cynicism. Despite this, "Christmas Island" is far from a downer album; it aims to draw tears that roll down onto a smile. On "Children of God," Bonnette is able to juxtapose a song riddled with children eating the hearts of angels and a chorus about a tribe of cannibals collecting the blood of their victims with a singsong rendition of Thomas the Tank Engine's trademark phrase "I think I can! I think I can!"
This is truly where "Christmas Island" shines. Yes, the instrumentals are beautiful mixes of folk guitar, strings and a sprinkling of punk rock rhythms, but these are merely a backdrop for Bonnette's bizarre use of imagery and cryptic sense of humor. There are few bands in the world that aren't based around an image of pentagrams and black eyeliner that can get away with lines such as "With eyes as red as a dog's asshole when you see it shitting." There are even fewer bands that can paint a picture of lying in a coffin of mutilated orphans killed by the owner of a child snuff-film website and have it ring poetically, followed immediately by singing "Do-Re-Mi," as Bonnette does on "Do, Re, and Me." And there are virtually no other bands in the world that can begin a track with a line such as "I am a blank page, in a notebook, waiting to be filled by countless drawings of cocks," only for the next verse to vividly tell a heart-wrenching tale of an abused child named Cody hiding in an abandoned house behind an Arby's, trying to think of ways to make his family love him, as "Angel of Death" does.
In a sense, subtlety is not the intent of "Christmas Island." While there are certainly metaphors which ring with beautiful subjectivity, such as in "Coffin Dance," as Bonnette discusses the the futility of existence, crooning "Coffin dancer dances like he has something to prove, because he does," these are not surface glance objects. For the impatient or sensitive listener, songs such as "Getting Naked, Playing With Guns," which chronicles Bonnette climbing a tree with a rifle in the yard of the neighbor kid with ADD and "blowing the little dick-head up to smithereens," can easily be chalked up as mindless hatred with no inherent value. To refute that, this is not an album that wants to give you a hug. This an album that holds the world up by its throat, drives a knife into its stomach and pulls its guts out, screaming at you to look at what's really inside. This is an album that is not too shy to focus on bad things in the world, and perfectly exemplifies the fear and pain of growing up, with lines like "Balls deep in reality, I spent all of my time getting strung out on life," heard in "Best Friend."
While every song on "Christmas Island" is a graphic surrealist venture riddled with ingenuity and beauty, "Linda Ronstadt" stands above all else. A gorgeous mix of cellos and acoustic guitar accompanies Bonnette telling the story of a mental breakdown at a museum spurred by an exhibit of a Linda Ronstadt video. Culminating in the chorus "I almost made it through a year, of choking down my fears, but they're gone for now, all thanks to Linda Ronstadt." With simple lines like "I think I like my pretty pretty ugly," "Linda Ronstadt" is a touching venture into the insecure fears that plague the hearts of all of us, all captivated through Bonnette "losing his shit in that museum."
"Christmas Island" is a difficult album. While it is not filled with distortion or pent-up anger released through guttural screams, it is as heavy as music can be. Filled with tales of cannibalism, child murder, killing of religious figures and an incessant, soul-crushing self-loathing, it is not an album to play at your grandmother's birthday party. Yet, it is enchanting, glittered with drops of hope and optimism popping up through the horror, all the while carrying a strong introspective nature carried through beautiful, soft instrumentals and Bonnette's musings. Ending on the line "Bad Lieutenant 2 is the greatest movie ever!" as the angel of death/video store clerk named Trevor prepares to murder a customer, Bonnette's outlandish sense of humor binds all of the travesty together. This is an album that will bring you to tears, then turn those tears to ones of laughter and back to ones of sadness again in a span of a minute. It shows a sense of maturity rarely found in bands of any genre. Andrew Jackson Jihad crosses the line of the macabre cynicism and still cradles the listener with laughs and inside jokes, without showing any need for a fall-back comfort zone, without fear of putting off the listener.
In short, "Christmas Island" is a masterpiece of surreal, fever-dream madness, tap-dancing on the line of brutality and beauty.
For fans of: The Mountain Goats, Bomb the Music Industry!, Modest Mouse, Neutral Milk Hotel