Christmas Island, the 5th album proper from Andrew Jackson Jihad, is a little bit silly, a little bit serious. It’s a record that’s irreverent yet somber, full of humor and full of pathos, its twelve songs combining the two to create a record that – truly – cuts right to the bone of the human condition. Whether it’s life, love, death, loss or Linda Ronstadt, this record has it all, delving into the most profound of emotions, reaching deep into the heart of humanity, unveiling universal truths through the most unlikely of scenarios.
Of course, if you’re aware of Andrew Jackson Jihad – comprised of founding members Sean Bonnette (vocals and guitar) and Ben Gallaty (bass), with Preston Bryant (keyboards, guitars) and Deacon Batchelor (drums) and album/touring cellist Mark Glick – you’ll know that the Phoenix, Arizona outfit have been doing exactly that for the last decade. In fact, they’ve built a significant cult following since their inception in 2004, one that knows just how heartbreaking, heartwarming and inspiring their shambolic songs can be. This record – their first for SideOneDummy Records – is no different. And while Bonnette acknowledges it’s their most cohesive to date, it wasn’t the easiest to write.
“One or two of these songs,” he explains, “I’d started writing before our last album was out. And then there was a bit of struggle to write, a battle against self-doubt that I eventually won, with the help of [producer] John Congleton. He definitely helped coax out songs. He told us, ‘Write as many songs as you can and send them to me, and I’ll tell you which ones I want to record.’ Since then, I’ve started to adopt that method, not so much worrying if a song is a good song, but just making sure that I write a song. It was a really fun process, after the battle against self-doubt was won.”
You can hear just how fun it was when you listen to it. Recorded by Congleton (Murder By Death, The Mountain Goats, Okkervil River, The Thermals) at Elmwood Studios in Dallas, Texas, Christmas Island’s twelve songs are good songs – actually, they’re great songs – and they combine to present a vibrant vision of what Andrew Jihad Jackson is all about; blurring the lines between the ludicrous and the earnest, reality and surreality. Take, for instance, ‘Linda Rondstadt’, a plaintive three minute ballad about the power country/soft rock singer. ‘Today I lost my shit in a museum / It was a video installation of Linda Rodstadt,’ opines Bonnette in the first verse, before the chorus kicks in: ‘I almost made it through a year of choking down my fears / But they’re gone for now, all thanks to Linda Rondstadt.’ It sounds ridiculous, but it’s a true story.
“That’s one of the songs about something that actually happened,” says Bonnette. “I was living back in Phoenix, Arizona after living in Chicago for a year with my girlfriend. So I was really homesick, but I was at home, and we went to the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale, Arizona as chaperones for my uncle’s high school ESL class, but as soon as we got there we fucked off and didn’t supervise any of those kids. We just walked around, and I found an installation of Linda Rondstadt’s music, of her singing in Spanish. And it was at that point that I just lost it. All of the homesickness hit me and I just started weeping. The weird thing is that I wasn’t even that big a fan of Linda Rondstadt until that moment. I’d always thought positively of her, but she’d certainly never made me cry before”
While that song might relate to one specific moment of overwhelming grief, there’s an underlying influence that runs through all of them – the death of Bonnette’s grandfather. Last track ‘Angel Of Death’ references it explicitly, but his grandfather’s presence is in all of these songs.
“A whole lot of the record,” explains Bonnette, “is about pre-grieving. He passed away about a month before we went in to record it. I flew in after a solo tour and made it just in time to watch him die and be with him. The next week we started practising to record. So he was pretty much with me the entire time, and was obviously playing on my mind. A lot of these songs are about grieving before you need to grieve and making your peace with it before anything happens. I had my worst night before I flew home, before he’d even passed away. But there’s another theme, too – which is pretty heavily handed in the song ‘Deathlessness’ – and that’s that forgiveness is a pretty wonderful thing. After my grandfather’s death, I realised that there were a couple of people I’d been holding grudges and ill will against and I decided to forgive them, and I feel a lot better about it now.”
That tension between fury and forgiveness, between anger and calm, between love and hate and life and death, isn’t just thematic, but weaved into in the sonic fabric of these songs. In ‘Deathlessness’ itself, the jaunty, minor chord melody rages against the inevitability of death, the tune restless and agitated until the key refrain – ‘How can I live without ever knowing the beauty of forgiveness?’ – tempers it with grace and, yes, beauty. Opener ‘Temple Grandin’ is scuzzy yet melodic, while the tense euphoria of ‘Children Of God’ is as beautiful and disturbing as the song’s incredible imagery (choice example: ‘I found a weird calling card in a puddle of body parts inside a bowl of angel hearts that the children were eating’). ‘Kokopelli Face Tattoo’ – which has been floating around for years in various guises – thrashes with fuzzy, catchy energy, ‘Coffin Dance’ is fragile yet frustrated, worn down by life but desperate to kick out against it, and closer ‘Angel Of Death’ brims with a confidence that bravely defies its subject matter.
“We’d just finished touring as an electric band,” says Bonnette, “and we were kind of ready to make an electric rock album. I’m so glad we didn’t do that. Because John wanted to make a mostly acoustic album that was really brutal, that was sonically very distorted and over-driven and almost painful to listen to. Almost as if to prove that acoustic music can be heavy. But he also wanted me to write songs from the heart.”
These are certainly songs from the heart, but ones as unusual as they are traditional. It’s a record that’s raw and gentle, hummable yet abrasive and downright weird and wonderful. It’s a little bit silly and a little bit serious, full of sad humor and hilarious pathos. Because Christmas Island – it’s far from a random title, but it’s also kind of a secret – is simultaneously ridiculous and sublime in the way that Andrew Jackson Jihad always have been. It’s a record absolutely in keeping with their bold and brilliant past – the one their cult following has been following for years – but it’s also a bold and brilliant step forward. That’s something Bonnette, in his typically modest, playful way, almost agrees with.
“I’m mostly happy with it,” he chuckles. “I think our next record will be better than this. At least, I hope that it would be. But if I died tomorrow, I’d be really happy that this was the last thing I recorded.”