Andrew Jackson Jihad's 2007 full-length, People Who Can Eat People are the Luckiest People In the World, means a lot to me, and along with Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose, stands as one of the pinnacles of the folk-punk genre. Its followup, 2009's Can't Maintain, while a fine record in its own right, didn't quite have the same emotional resonance for me as People, so I went into their latest offering, Knife Man, with modest expectations, and it blew every single one of them away.
After a short and somber introduction in "The Michael Jordan of Drunk Driving", Knife Man kicks into high gear with "The Gift of the Magi 2: Return of the Magi 2". It retains the distorted electric guitars first introduced on Can't Maintain, but it feels like the band have a better handle on that kind of instrumentation now, and are writing songs with it in mind, rather than simply adding it to folk songs where it might not belong. Indeed, all of the songs on Knife Man in this style ("Distance" and "Hate, Rain on Me" spring to mind), feel more confident and fully fleshed out than anything on Can't Maintain.
Even with this added instrumentation, Sean Bonnette's lyrics are what have always endeared me, and I imagine the majority of the group's fans to the band, and Knife Man contains some of the most accomplished lyrics of their career thus far. "American Tune" is a meditation on white, heterosexual male privilege, and while somewhat light in tone, it comes off more thoughtful and poignant than anything a band like RVIVR has ever managed to muster up on the subject. "Back Pack" is an extremely graphic account of coming home to find a murdered lover. So graphic, in fact, that at times it is hard to listen to ("They cut out your tongue so you would not scream when you came to. You pissed blood, and then they chained you up when you turned blue. Your body felt just like a T-shirt"), but its haunting melody is so beautiful it's impossible to turn off.
Musically, the band stretches their legs more than they ever have before, and there's not an experiment that doesn't work. Immediately following the bluesy "No One" comes "Sad Songs (Intermission)", a full-blown outlaw country jaunt that manages to work in the phrase "Do you want some cheese with all that whine?" The guitar solos that crop up throughout the album add a new dimension to the group's sound, and serve the songs, rather than just being showoff-y.
As great as the first half of Knife Man is, its second is even better. "Zombie by the Cranberries by Andrew Jackson Jihad" is the closest thing stylistically to People, and features perhaps the best lyrics on the album–that is, until the next song, "People II 2: Still Peoplin'" comes along. It's worthy of its title, cutting just as deep as its predecessors, lyrically. The entire song is immensely quotable, but I'll stick to just one highlight: "You can hope it gets better, you can follow your dreams. But hope is for presidents, and dreams are for people who are sleeping." The song follows a standard folk punk pattern for most of its runtime, but out of nowhere transforms into a Japanther-esque (but better) droney punk tune for its last 10 seconds or so. The album closes on a somber note with "Big Bird", another one of the best songs the band has ever written, with too many great lyrics to even begin to quote.
With Knife Man, Andrew Jackson Jihad have given their fans everything they could have wanted and more. While People will always have a very special place in my record collection and in my heart, this is unquestionably the band's greatest work on almost every level. They've expanded on the musical strides forward they made with Can't Maintain and then some. They've created a well-rounded, diverse album, that is engaging front to back, and could go down as one of the finest folk-punk records ever recorded, although there is much more going on here than you'll find on an average folk-punk record. Absolutely fantastic.