Funny, abrasive, and tender by turns, Knife Man won't change the cold world it rails against. But it will bring a little warmth.
Andrew Jackson Jihad has kept a low profile since their debut album Candy Cigarettes and Cap Guns, touring only occasionally and releasing material when they feel like it. But over the last six years the band has consistently created memorable albums full of anti-folk political grandstanding and infectious DIY folk-punk, including Can't Maintain, which for my money was one of the best albums of 2009.
The band has temporarily resurfaced to go on an extensive North American tour with Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls and release Knife Man, an album which I could say sounds like Merle Haggard's illegitimate grandson took a lot of pills, joined an eco-friendly faction of the Black Panthers, and wrote his interpretation of a Mountain Goats record. But that doesn't say much, and it certainly doesn't go any distance to explaining how great Knife Man truly is.
Musically it is a mishmash of styles connected by a trip through the fine mesh of Andrew Jackson Jihad's worldview, where one can say "God is obsolete" and then four songs later threaten to "fuck the devil in his mouth", and neither sentiment sounds like a bid for controversy. Knife Man has a lot going on sonically: a spit-in-your-face punk aesthetic, elements of folk, anti-folk, Americana, garage rock, and an undertone of hip-hop swagger, bringing to mind the blasé attitude of Brooklyn rap trio Das Racist ,who are perhaps the only group capable of giving less of a fuck what anyone thinks than Andrew Jackson Jihad.
Lyrically Knife Man is classic Andrew Jackson Jihad: piss and vinegar testimonials railing against government, apathy, ipods, and dogs that stop loving their owners. But the tracks have a genuine sweetness to them; a sense of humor, and also love. I was told by a writing professor once that true empathy for your characters is the hallmark of a great writer, and lead singer Sean Bonnette has empathy in spades, whether for "the junky lying in a puddle of his own blood" or "diabetic bellies gleaming fat and round" or the "Michael Jordan of drunk driving" whose 30-second saga opens the album.
The image of Bonnette carrying his dead lover's body to the ocean to be cleaned in "Back Pack" sticks with me long after the deliberately downtempo song ends, and the mundane tenderness with which he states "Your body felt just like a back pack" is just beautiful. In a less tragic universe, Johnny Cash would still be alive to cover "Sad Songs" on the next installment of his American series. The saloon piano, simple structure, and self-reflective lyrics stripped down and funneled through Cash’s twilight rasp would have been a revelation, and given Bonnette’s songwriting the wide platform it deserves. But in a less tragic universe the need for songs railing against "the social laziness that let Kitty Genovese die" wouldn't exist, and neither would Andrew Jackson Jihad.
The moralizing on Knife Man does get heavy-handed at times, but the homespun simplicity and rage with which it’s delivered actually adds to its power. This isn't Bono holding press conferences from his summer home lamenting that someone somewhere is suffering. Bonnette feels the suffering too. He knows that "we're all two or three bad decisions away from becoming the ones we fear and pity" and that knowledge infuses every word he sings. On the hilariously titled "Sorry Bro" he gives an even more candid statement: "I would hate to be like you, but I'm still rooting for you". The love oozing from that venomous line is what makes Knife Man one of the most remarkable albums you'll hear all year.