Anthems of the soul
An overview of folk/punk band "AJJ" and a look at their latest album
January 22, 2020
“AJJ” has come a long way. From the plucky “Candy Cigarettes & Cap Guns” to the hallucinatory “The Bible 2,” the Phoenix-based band’s discography leaps across topics, sounds, and genres. With their latest album, “Good Luck Everybody,” they get decidedly political while still maintaining that “AJJ” charm, even if the final product is less than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps it’s best to start at the beginning. Their first record, 2005’s “Candy Cigarettes & Cap Guns,” swears like a sailor and isn’t ashamed to show it. The album is by turns violent, offensive, and derogatory… and seems to be holding back. A few “AJJ” staples are there (frustration with God, cynicism, and the like), but they’re hiding behind a layer of irony. Nothing is personal.
And then something changed. Maybe it was newfound confidence, maybe comfort with the music scene, but their lyrics in 2007’s “People Who Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People in the World” became more honest, more intimate. Granted, they still had a long way to go (“People Who Can Eat…” is pretty much the musical embodiment of bipolar disorder), but they were making progress.
I can feel my brain a-changin’, acclimating to the madness
I can feel my outrage shifting into a dull, despondent sadness”
— ''Normalization Blues''
In 2009, the band reached a point of maturation: for the first time, they began to look inwardly. “Can’t Maintain,” to this day, is their most naked album. Not a single track hides behind a persona, nor are other people blamed. Frontman Sean Bonnette lays his heart bare for all to see, its fears, hopes, and insecurities on full display.
“And although I feel cold and empty, one day I hope I can feel warm and full,” Bonnette says in “Evil.” “[And] stand with honor, and comfort, and dignity.”
“Knife Man,” released in 2011, combines the anger of “Candy Cigarettes & Cap Guns” with the honesty of “Can’t Maintain,” creating their best record yet. It contains a wide variety of songs, including the 20-second “The Michael Jordan of Drunk Driving” and depressingly hilarious “Sad Songs.” Despite its overwhelming total of 16 (!) tracks, “Knife Man” remains “AJJ’s” rawest and most powerful album. It would be three years before they released another.
2014’s “Christmas Island” established the sound the band is known for today, one that I can only describe as being recorded on a tin can. Though the album brought on some notable collaborators and introduced a new style, it is still Bonnette’s lyrics that carry it through. He’s known for his strange and surreal imagery, which is in spades here (he calls himself “a toilet in a restaurant” at one point), but also a certain melancholy.
Two years later came “The Bible 2,” which continued the lo-fi trend and expanded upon the character of Cody, who was mentioned in the final track of “Christmas Island.” The album’s penultimate song, “Small Red Boy,” ended the introspective arc that had pervaded Bonnette’s lyrics since “Can’t Maintain.” It crescendos to a fantastic ending as he proclaims that he will live with “no more shame, no more fear, no more dread.” His inner turmoil solved (or at least accepted), there didn’t seem to be anywhere to go but up — and then 2016 happened.
It’s important to note that “AJJ” has always been political. (Look no further than, say, “Joe Arpaio is a Punk,” a song labeling “America’s Toughest Sheriff” as a corrupt, racist chump.) For a band that sings lines like “people are the greatest thing to happen,” anyone who does what Trump does is bound to be on their shi- er, I mean hitlist. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying his effect on the American identity.
I’m a burnout and a fool, oblivious to all I do
I move my lips when I read and breathe with my mouth open, wide open”
With that, we arrive at “Good Luck Everybody.”
It starts with “A Poem” and “Normalization Blues,” the frantic guitar strumming on the latter reminiscent of the band’s older work. That’s all thrown out the window with “Body Terror Song,” however, a wild, psychedelic track with enough warping to cause a time rift. It sets the stage for the remaining eight tracks: a little experimental, and mostly pessimistic.
There is one song that stands out above the others, for better or for worse: the brutal “No Justice, No Peace, No Hope.” It is by and large the darkest song on the album, in part due to its utter lack of optimism. “I used to comfort myself with the myth of good intention,” Bonnette says. “I can’t believe that I believed that goodness was inherent.” This is a sharp change in sentiment from an earlier song of theirs, “This is Not a War,” which says that “there is no enemy, [only] people who love their families.”
This radical change in thinking is present in other tracks on the album. In “Feedbag,” which really drives home the despondence mentioned in the blurb from “Normalization Blues” above, Bonnette can only muster to say that “people are real.” Closer “A Big Day for Grimley” also covers the disconnection he feels: “I live in a fortress the shape of my body, and now there’s a coldness, and it’s shaped like me.”
Where the record disappoints, however, is in its failure to provide a complete, unified vision. To be blunt, “Good Luck Everybody” is a mesh of songs that stand well on their own, but not in relation to each other. It’s jarring to go from “Maggie,” a sweet track told from the perspective of Bonnette’s dog, to “Psychic Warfare,” a hateful ode to Trump that will be outdated by the end of the year. The intention of this was presumably to replicate the feeling of scrolling through your social media feed; if so, it could have been done better.
But that is not to rob the individual songs of their power: “No Justice, No Peace, No Hope” perfectly captures the despair of a specific era, “A Big Day for Grimley” is a send-off that stands among “Small Red Boy” and “Big Bird,” and “Loudmouth” is just plain great. Hopefully, when the dust settles and things return to normal, “AJJ” can (in their own words) “move on to worthier projects.” We’ll have to wait and see.
Good luck, everybody.