AJJ might be the only band I’ve gone from totally obsessed with to not even paying attention to. When I first heard “Rejoice” off the 2007 album People Who Can Eat People Are The Luckiest People In The World in 2012, it was an outright revelation, not just that folk punk existed and was good, but that any music made in the 21st century was good. But by that time, they were already drifting away from their angry acoustic roots into a standard Jeff Rosenstock-esque 2010s band. 2016’s The Bible 2 was when they completely lost me, as it felt they had completely abandoned everything I had liked about them. The acoustic guitars and stand up bass were no longer even in their arrangement, let alone the backbone of it.
But last week a friend linked me to the new track, “Normalization Blues,” and I was blown away. Not only had AJJ returned to the glory of an acoustic track, but the lyrics were actually a very good and relatively original take on modern society. Sean was singing within his range for once (not that his cracking voice had been a deal breaker before), and the melody was some acoustic shredding like I’d only heard him do when I saw them live on the People Who Eat People 10th Anniversary tour. I thought that after their forays in that current brand of soft punk (which would’ve been an oxymoron until the 2000s) they might be returning to their folk punk roots.
Good Luck Everybody is mostly a continuation of what they established as their current brand on Christmas Island, an album that grew on me but I’m still not terribly fond of. The electric piano dominates every song it’s on with frequent use of needless vocoders. It is the Crosby, Stills, and Nash of modern punk, demonstrating a softer side of a genre defined by rebellion and straining the definition of the genre.
But what of the lyrics. After all, “Sense and Sensitivity” would not be an all time great song were it not for lines like “And sense and sensibility and peaceful productivity/A pretty girl with broken wings is all that I desire.” Well, Good Luck Everybody has its shining moments. It burns it’s strongest lyric on it’s first when Sean sings “A poem’s just a song no one cares about” (not that poetry can’t be artistically beautiful, but no one wants to hear it unless it’s got at least two chords behind it) but there’s also “I live in a fortress/The shape of my body/And now there’s a coldness/And it’s shaped like me” on “A Big Day For Grimley.” However, the bulk of the album focuses on what AJJ has always stumbled to make compelling — society. Their lyrical downfall can ultimately be traced to the fact that Sean and Ben don’t know how to translate that beautiful poetry they wrote about themselves into words commenting about the world at large, no matter how hard they try (with “Normalization Blues” being the notable exception). All the great AJJ songs have been about the narrator himself.
There’s nothing wrong with writing political music, or even expressing these political views, but you have to be good at it. You can look at my piece on Pat the Bunny as this generation’s Bob Dylan to know that I can like radical leftist music, it’s just that AJJ don’t do it particularly well. I find their new lyrics so trite, I had to recently go back and re-listen to Only God Can Judge Me Now to figure out if they were actually ever any good or if it was just my adolescent brain thinking superficial things were deep. Young me was right, AJJ were some of the best poets of the 2000s, but their 2010s (and now 2020s) material just hasn’t been up to snuff.
The saddest part to me is that the commercial success of these later albums (judging by which press outlets cover them) has been massive compared to the cult classics they put out in the 2000s. It makes me very cynical about the market as a whole to see lyrics like “Mega Guillotine, I’m voting for you” take over when lyrics like “Let’s be our own Gods, and take care of ourselves and the ones that we love” got swept under the rug.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.