Graded on a Curve: Andrew Jackson Jihad, People That Can Eat People Are The Luckiest People In The World

I’m writing this review freehand in a funeral home in a place I’ve never been before. It’s a cold, bleak, town in Northern Pennsylvania with a coal economy but no more coal, and the eerily deserted main street is one long sad succession of sooty store windows with GOING OUT OF BUSINESS signs in them. I’m sitting in a folding chair in the back row of a memorial service for a man named Eugene Love, and I’m here because the death of Love was too much for me to resist, and I’m waiting for Love to sit up in his coffin and say a mistake’s been made, Love can never die, but Love doesn’t sit up because Love is dead, kaput, history.

I went to bear witness to the passing of Love because I’m a dark bastard and I like to be reminded that life, as Arthur Schopenhauer once said, “Is something that should not have been,” everything ends in death, and all the other despicable realities that make existence so unpalatable to the discerning individual of elevated tastes. But as it turns out, mine was a wasted trip, because all I had to do to keep in mind the utter futility of life was turn on Arizona folk-punk band Andrew Jackson Jihad.

I knew I was in the presence of kindred spirits the first time I heard Andrew Jackson Jihad vocalist/guitarist Sean Bonnette sing the line, “Hey everything/Fuck you.” And the first time I heard “People II: The Reckoning,” with its great lines, “So here’s to you Mrs. Robinson/People love you more/Oh never mind/Oh never mind/In fucking fact Mrs. Robinson/The world won’t care whether you live or die/You live or die/In fucking fact Mrs. Robinson/They probably hate to see your stupid face/Your stupid face/So here’s to you Mrs. Robinson/You live in an unforgiving place.”

Cheery, huh? I think so. As Samuel Beckett said, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” And few—if any—bands have ever written so many bleakly hilarious songs in accordance with Beckett’s dictum. Andrew Jackson Jihad specializes in squeezing laughs out of the horror of life, because if you can’t make a colossal joke out of the utterly hopeless state of things you might as well go kill yourself.

That said, Andrew Jackson Jihad aren’t perfect—they have their regrettable moments of hope and humanism, such as in the inane “People,” where Bonnette blurts out, obviously insane, “People are my religion/Because I believe in them.” But I’m willing to forgive Bonnette because elsewhere he sings, “The human race we are big, big dicks.” And because AJJ’s lyrics are so mordantly funny and their songs have really great titles like “Love Will Fuck Us Apart,” “Let Us Get Murdered,” “Hate, Rain on Me,” and “The Michael Jordan of Drunk Driving” and more often than not they take a gimlet-eyed view of being alive. And—talk about the icing on the birthday cake—they do a fantastic cover of “Ziggy Stardust.”

Formed in Phoenix, Arizona in 2004, Andrew Jackson Jihad are Bonnette, Ben Gallaty on standup bass, and a revolving cast of Arizona musicians. They’re released four excellent studio albums, a slew of EPs, a great live LP, and splits with the likes of Bloomington, Indiana’s Ghost Mice and Chicago’s The Gunshy, not to mention a sprawling 2011 split with Spring, Texas’ O Pioneers!!!—how a band that named itself after a boring Willa Cather novel is so great remains a mystery to me—that is nothing short of brilliant.

What do Andrew Jackson Jihad sound like? Well, they’re not crust punkers, and are closer in spirit to such fellow folk-punks as Defiance, Ohio, This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb, and the sadly defunct Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains. Bonnette frequently employs the same rushed and agitated nasal vocal delivery as Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, and some of AJJ’s tunes bear an uncanny resemblance to Darnielle’s work. And like Mountain Goats Bonnette and Gallaty rely primarily on the acoustic guitar and standup bass, although they do on occasion (again like Mountain Goats, only to a lesser extent) go electric; add supplemental instrumentation such as drums, mandolin, trumpet, saxophone, cello, and the kazoo; and in rare instances—such as on “Big Bird” and “White Face, Black Eyes,” amongst others—go all out with big orchestral flourishes.

I decided to review the Jihad’s second studio LP, People That Can Eat People Are the Luckiest People In The World, not necessarily because it’s their best record—although it’s great—but because unlike some of AJJ’s other releases it doesn’t have like 98 songs on it. I wish it included “Hate, Rain on Me,” “Let Us Get Murdered,” and “We Didn’t Come Here to Rock” (“We didn’t come here to rock/We only came to disappoint you/’Cause deep down in your cunt/That’s exactly what you wanted us to do.”) But hey, you can’t have it all unless you’re Sting, who lives in a 248-room castle complete with piranha-filled moat, shoots his Hispanic groundskeepers with a sniper rifle for laughs, and eats $9,000-per-ounce coelacanth sushi flecked with gold 7 nights a week because it’s said if you do you’ll live be 160.

People That Can Eat People opens with the great “Rejoice,” one of the darkest and funniest songs in their entire repertoire. It’s a fast-paced and beautiful song with some nice mandolin and horns, and it features Bonnette singing such wonderfully ironic lines as, “Rejoice, the bed you sleep in is burning/Rejoice, the sky’s fucking falling,” and “Rejoice, your hair it smells like burning hair/Oh rejoice, your nails all got chewed off/Rejoice, and holy fuck you’re bleeding there/Oh rejoice, you burned your whole beard off.” I don’t know why I find that last line so hilarious, unless it be that it reminds me of the time I almost did the same, setting my giant biker beard ablaze while drunk and trying to light a cigarette on the burner of a gas stove. Oh, and I love the lines, “Rejoice although you will not survive/Rejoice you’ll never make it out alive.”

“Brave As a Noun” is a short and frenetic tune, complete with mandolin and some nice handclaps. Not as mock inspirational as “Rejoice,” “Brave As a Noun” is about human fear, of everything basically. It opens with Bonnette frantically singing, “I could go off the deep end/I could kill all my best friends/I could follow those stylish trends,” but he’s blowing hot air, because (like the rest of us) he’s a coward at heart, afraid to leave the house and “too cowardly to take a stand/I want to keep my nose clean.” “Brave As a Noun” concludes way too soon with Bonnette’s depressing conclusion, “And it’s sad to know that we’re not alone in this/And it’s sad to know that there’s no honest way out/In this life we lead/We could conquer everything/If we could just get the braves to get out of bed in the morning.”

“Brave As a Noun” segues straight into “Survival Song,” which flies along like a Pogues’ jig and is all about how Bonnette learned how to survive. The lyrics vary from the absurdly funny (“And we totally ripped off a man named Woody Gutherie/And I bought a restaurant for his son named Alice/And I fed false information to the audience/And that’s how I learned how to survive”) to the dark and personal (“And I give a thank you to my father for not raising me/And I give a finger to my stepfather for beating me”), which is characteristic of the band. And a line in the song’s concluding stanza (“We just handed you a giant load of gibberish”) betrays one of AJJ’s favorite tactics, namely to undercut everything they just said, because these guys are pranksters, and it can sometimes be tough to tell when they’re being facetious or deadly serious.

“Bad Bad Things” is a dark dark song, told from the point of view of a merciless home invader with rape and murder on his mind. It opens with strummed guitar and mandolin, then Bonnette sings, “Do you remember me?/I killed your family/And now I’m going to kill you too.” It’s a totally irony free Straw Dogs of a song, with Bonnette singing, “I made your brother bleed/I made your father scream/And I made your mother say those things she said to me.” His words to the surviving mother, who has pleaded in vain for the killer to spare her family, are particularly blood curdling: “So I looked into your eyes and I saw the reflection/Of a coward you and I both hate very much/And then I grabbed the knife/And I let the blood out of your throat/And I smashed those tiny mirrors inside of your skull.” The song ends with the killer repeating, “If I don’t go to hell when I die I might go to heaven” before concluding, “But probably not.”

Like I said earlier, Andrew Jackson Jihad occasionally lapses into lamentable idealism and dreams of a better world, which are a total waste of breath and might as well make you Bob Geldof, except even he was smart enough to say, “Music can’t change the world.” But people keep trying, and such is the case with Andrew Jackson Jihad’s “No More Tears,” a stripped-down fast one with Bonnette singing such howlers as, “We’re all one big band across this land and we should sing in tune/Let us grow the balls to break the walls, we’ve got to do it soon.” It’s terrible to hear a band as smart as AJJ suddenly turn into the Grateful Dead. And as regards Bonnette’s dream, fat chance; there may be nothing funny about peace, love, and understanding, and hoping for no more tears is a laudable thing, but you might as well hope for it to snow cocaine. Me, I infinitely prefer Bonnette’s cynicism to his idealism because there’s nothing like the latter to make a fool of you. As Ambrose Bierce wrote in The Devil’s Dictionary, “Cynic, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.”

The “woah woah woahs” at the beginning of “Bells and Whistles” remind me of Arcade Fire, but the big-name Québécois band never opened a song with the lines, “I have often wondered if a pregnant woman is decapitated, will the baby survive?” “Bells and Whistles” is, per usual, a fast one, with both acoustic and electric guitars to toughen up the sound, and Bonnette is happily back in pessimistic mode when he wonders whether that baby will ever be happy and concludes, “No, his heart will be bloated and swollen, just like his soul/Too big to fit in his body.” Then comes the wonderfully depressing chorus (“And I don’t think that I can take it/And I don’t think that you can take it/And I know he sure as hell can’t take it/So we all go/So we all go/So we all go/Woah, woah, woah, etc.”) after which Bonnette sings a cappella, “Woah, woah, woah,” and the song ends.

Bonnette does some impressive speed singing on “Randy’s House,” which actually changes tempo and opens at a hardcore pace with mad drums and what sounds like an accordion pitching in. A kind of demented love song, “Randy’s House” features Bonnette singing, “When you kissed me on the cheek with a gun/I became a setting sun/Now you’re heading west bound while I’m lying on the ground/Thinking that you were the one.” As the song charges along like a PCP berserker Bonnette sings the chorus (“And I hope our candles flicker and die/So that our hearts don’t burn to the ground/Down, down just like Randy’s house”). Then the song slows to a crawl and Bonnette repeats the chorus to the accompaniment of what sounds to me (and I’m probably wrong) like accordion, perhaps a violin, and maybe a horn. How’s that for definitive rock criticism?

A slowly plinked xylophone opens the longish “A Song Dedicated to the Memory of Stormy the Rabbit,” which is slow and concerns itself with birth and dying and the purpose of it all. Then Bonnette comes in, sings a couple of verses, and is joined by a carnivalesque cacophony of trumpet, some mystery stringed instrument, and a mandolin. Bonnette sings about the fortitude to be found in 40-ounce beers, the way black cats are always running in front of his car, and how growing up leaves you “Sadly sighing/Liking, mud larking, and licking our wounds/We’ve created by lusting and lying to ourselves and to others.” Then he repeats the line, “We’re sadly sighing” to the accompaniment of horn and xylophone before concluding the song with the strange lines, “And I’d like to be a big ball of meat/That bees can buzz around and eat when I die/So that I may be granted one sense of purpose.” As for poor Stormy, he’s never mentioned, and if I were him I’d rise from the dead and sue.

The great “People II: The Reckoning” is next. Another mid-tempo ditty incorporating acoustic guitar, bass, and mandolin, you’ll be’ll hard pressed to find a more depressing song. Well, okay, “Bad Bad Things” is a far bigger bummer, as is Randy Newman’s “Baltimore” for that matter, and I know people who actually want to live in Baltimore. Anyway, “People II” is a lyrically rambling discourse on a life spent in “fight or flight mode,” and Bonnette is confused and wants answers: “How’s the world so small when the world is so large?/And what made the world/Could I please speak to who’s in charge?” But the song’s real message comes just before Bonnette takes Mrs. Robinson to task. Bonnette shows a real understanding of human nature when he sings, “But there’s a bad man in everyone/No matter who we are/There’s a rapist and a Nazi living in our tiny hearts/Child pornographers and cannibals, and politicians too/There’s someone in your head waiting to fucking strangle you.”

“Personal Space Invader” is a very cool tune that unfortunately finds Bonnette in preacher’s garb, and if there’s one thing I hate it’s a preacher. The song starts, falls apart, then starts again, this time with a weird whistling noise added to the usual guitar, bass, and mandolin. Bonnette opens the song with the cryptic lines, “I gave birth to twin wire hangovers/Now I am a personal space invader,” then launches into an attack on coke users, singing, “How can you put that straw up your nose/When you know how coke is manufactured?/It’s made by children for the immature/It’s made by babies who’ve been captured/It’s a sin against your fellow man.” All true, but if Bonnette thinks he’ll talk a single human being out of using cocaine, he’s not as bright as I think he is. The song then takes off like an Irish reel, with a horn throwing in, while Bonnette pleads for all of us to “Be kind to those you love/And be kind to those you don’t/But for God’s sake you gottta be kind” before shouting, “Be the best fucking human that you can be!” as the song grows increasingly frenetic, a horn plays an absurd little riff, and the tune ends. At which point somebody says, “Sounds like shit.” And maybe I’m being a little hard on Bonnette, because I believe in kindness and in being the best human you can be too. I simply don’t believe in telling other people to be kind, because it’s a waste of valuable breath I could be using to smoke.

The LP closes with “People,” a nice little country honk of a song, and Bonnette is in ambiguous mode, basically singing that people do bad things but that he loves them anyway, and even has faith in them. Which is where I get off the Andrew Jackson Jihad bus and put out my thumb along the highway of futility in the hopes that the late Romanian pessimist philosopher E.M. Cioran will drive by in a Corvette and offer me a ride. “People” includes the horrifyingly banal lyrics, “People are people regardless of skin/People are people regardless of creed/People are people regardless of gender/People are people regardless of anything.” Well, no shit Sherlock. Bonnette rubs salt in my nihilistic wounds by singing, “People are the greatest thing to happen,” and as if that’s not nauseating enough, “People are my religion because I believe in them/People are my enemies and people are my friends/I have faith in my fellow man/And I only hope that he has faith in me.”

In the end, I don’t know what to say. I love Andrew Jackson Jihad because they make me laugh, their songs are catchy, and they appear on first glance to be every bit the nihilistic I am. But I might as well unsay everything I said at the beginning of this piece, because as it turns out Bonnette is a dyed-in-the-wool humanist, which is another term for a person who thinks mankind is basically good, when all the evidence points in exactly the opposite direction. And a humanist is just another name for an optimist, i.e., a person who will happily inform you the glass is half full even if it contains cyanide. So I guess I’m left to take what I can from the band, and leave the poisonous positivity alone. People who can eat people may be the luckiest people in the world, but I’ll take E.M. Cioran’s quote on people-eating any day: to wit, “Sometimes I wish I were a cannibal—less for the pleasure of eating someone than for the pleasure of vomiting him.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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  • sam

    Northeastern PA or northwestern?

  • cj77

    I got a very strong ironic vibe from all the humanistic songs. The only one with remotely cheery music is People, and the facts that it is meant to cap the album and that it is some kind of prequel to the much more incisive People II: The Reckoning make it seem clearly ironic as well. I think the juxtaposition of songs thick with hopelessness and songs featuring calls for change is intentional and not at all optimistic.

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