J. Robbins 2024
Photo: Shane K. Gardner / Sweet Cheetah PR

J. Robbins Opens Up on ‘Basilisk’

J. Robbins’ place in punk and indie rock history is secure, but he still makes relevant, powerful music as shown on Basilisk.

J. Robbins
2 February 2024

At this point, J. Robbins has nothing left to prove to anyone. As a musician, his resume includes Jawbox, one of the most acclaimed and admired bands of the 1990s. After Jawbox disbanded, his subsequent projects, Burning Airlines, Channels, and Office of Future Plans, all maintained high levels of quality while sometimes venturing outside the signature Jawbox sound.

As a producer, he has been behind the boards of some of the most heralded emo and indie rock records in the genres, including the Promise Ring, Texas Is the Reason, Jets to Brazil, the Dismemberment Plan, and Shiner. To do all of this while maintaining such high-quality control is an achievement; his name in the credits is a near guarantee of quality.

Another calling card is Robbins’, at times, willfully inscrutable lyrics, something he has acknowledged. Particularly in Jawbox, he specialized in compelling imagery with an air of menace, drawing from literature and films for inspiration. However, he seems increasingly less interested in maintaining the mystery. On recent Jawbox reunion shows, he has been changing the lyrics to make them more direct. On his first proper solo release, 2019’s Un-becoming, he aired his vitriol about the state of the nation with little room for interpretation on songs like “Citizen”, “Your Majesty”, and the title track. Musically, Un-Becoming didn’t fall far from the tree. Fans of Robbins’ discography found plenty to like in the trademark noisy guitars and bitter, resigned lyrics.

This brings us to Basilisk, his second solo album, which is a surprise on two fronts. This is probably the least aggressive-sounding record of his career and features some of the most direct and vulnerable lyrics he’s shared.

“Automaticity” begins the record with synthesizers rather than discordant guitars before turning into another J. Robbins banger of a piece with his previous work. “Gasoline Rainbows” is straight-up pop, with a big hook and synthesizers sanding off the rougher edges heard on other tracks. “Not the End” and “Sonder” are more serene tracks, downright pretty. Make no mistake, though; there is plenty here that longtime fans have come for. “Exquisite Corpse”, “Open Mind”, and “Last War” have an air of the best type of familiarity for longtime fans.  

The centerpiece, “Old Soul”, is dedicated to Robbins’ son Callum, who was born with spinal muscular atrophy, an incurable nerve disorder that ended his life. It is the most vulnerable Robbins has ever been on a song, and it is heartrending to hear him sing about his son as “Precious cargo in a box of brittle bones” and the matter-of-fact devastation of the line “Old soul / Severed from the fold.” This is a powerful, unexpected song from Robbins, a wrenching tribute to a child gone too soon.

Closer “Dead-Eyed God” is a remarkably unsettling song critiquing faith-driven extremism. Driven by synths instead of guitars, save a solo, and populated by lines like “Boys so proud to make the most / Of your abusive father’s ghost / With dreams of knife-fight sacrifice / To feed a dead-eyed god,” it brings the record to an uneasy close.

Robbins’ place in punk and indie rock history is secure, but he still makes relevant, powerful music for his faithful. He can also be depended on to make another excellent record a few years from now. But as many of us have discovered along the way, there is a satisfaction in connection that supersedes being unknowable. Rather than taking pleasure in requiring decoding, he is more interested in being known on Basilisk, and that vulnerability suits him. 

RATING 8 / 10