When I first heard AJJ’s “Small Red Boy” on a 2017 Spotify playlist, it stuck out like a semitrailer trying to turn left on a rural road. The song was too big to fit; the colors were too deep and too smooth. I had to stop dead, watch it go through the points of the turn, fascinated by the skill and self-sufficiency of the thing.
“Small Red Boy” is, to be clear, an absolutely deranged introduction to AJJ. You would never put it on a mix. It’s not that it’s a bad song (it’s one of their best), or a tricky or inaccessible song (because they don’t write those). It’s just that it’s the emotional climax of a huge and balanced album, sort of the equivalent of your first Aimee Mann song being “Beautiful.” The Bible 2 isn’t a flat-out concept album like Mann’s The Forgotten Arm, although both of them are about trauma and American men (in Mann’s case), or dudes (in AJJ’s).
The narrator of The Bible 2 isn’t AJJ’s frontman Sean Bonnette, and he isn’t not Sean Bonnette. You know how this kind of thing works: it’s a fiction, but writers are drawn to ideas for a reason. This character is sometimes a child and sometimes an adult, damaged, depressive, oppositionally defiant, afraid of himself, and with a piercing, bitter humor that thrashes out of him in a hot wave. The whole album is from his perspective, except for the track “Golden Eagle,” which is from the perspective of Steve Carell’s character in the movie Foxcatcher. I don’t make these decisions, man. I am only the scribe.
The first question I had about “Small Red Boy” was “can this possibly be serious?” It was a question I asked because, from the first lines, I wanted it to be serious. It starts with a faux-naive use of the word “tummy” and develops into a strange and stately ballad, an extended fantasia about Sean’s character a) giving birth to a tiny demon, who identifies himself as “The Truth,” b) tenderly raising the demon as his own child, c) seeing him grow large enough that the narrator can walk into his mouth, where d) he finds a palace in which he himself becomes a demon, finding ecstatic closure and forgiveness.
“Small Red Boy” doesn’t care if you think it’s too on the nose; it’s instrumental, a tool in the better sense. It’s about learning to live with the grit in our eye. I assume the grit in question here is mental illness — many of AJJ’s songs are about depression, anxiety, mania, intrusive thoughts — but there’s room for various and comorbid readings: addiction, codependency, childhood trauma, wrongness of the body. It’s a song in the band’s signature register, in which nothing is pompous and nothing is completely unfunny. (I should say that once in a while, you hit a very pompous AJJ song, which has seemingly sacrificed itself for the others.)
I’ve mentioned here before that I was a suicide hotline operator for several years. I wish I could do it again, but I think the burnout goes to the bone. Still, the experience was powerful and formative. One thing I learned is that there are many ways to do crisis work. The style I found for myself was to focus on my talent for mirroring people’s mood, their affect, without mirroring their emotions. I had to be called out on that second part before I could understand this, but basically, most people appreciate a voice that’s like theirs, but much calmer. They don’t appreciate a hotline operator who sounds as upset as they are. They do like the validation of one who sees the world as they do.
I never faked an opinion or made up a persona, but I found the parts of myself that matched theirs. There were callers who brought out my butch side, my anti-authoritarian side, the side of me that appreciates a dark joke. Because of my upbringing, I’m not good at speaking openly about mental illness and emotional struggle, even though my health and ideals both depend on speaking that way. It was only possible at the time to do it when I was helping someone.
Listening to AJJ is a lot like that, except that the caller is me*. I listen to them in good moods too; this is not a therapeutic relationship, and they’re a brilliant, adventurous, funny band. But if I’m troubled and can’t admit it — if my mental health is bad — if I’m frustrated with myself, I can turn on People Who Can Eat People Are The Luckiest People In the World, or Christmas Island, or whatever, and I’ll find an ambient atmosphere that normalizes the pressure in my brain. This deepest side of me, which is butch and anti-authoritarian and needs dark jokes to live, is here in these songs. I pass through them, I feel terrible, and then I’m released. I start to feel better.
This is, I realize, all a very odd angle from which to attack a punk band. These songs, quiver, they spit; a lot of the early ones are classically bratty and gory, and there were early moments when lowering myself into them felt like becoming the Joker. (And wasn’t I too tired for this, too old? Hadn’t I put too many years of feelings into bands who’ve turned out to be shallow or fascist or just bad?) But what I’ve found is that AJJ can possibly be serious, and they really are that good. They really did change their name a few years ago because the old one was offensive and failed in its ironies, and they really are fronted by a licensed social worker. Bonnette has written eleven thousand albums chronicling his slow artistic and personal maturing as a skater from Phoenix whose brain has a mouth and screams. I’ve never spoken to him and never will, but through music I’ve called him hundreds of times, and he always picks up.
*I have no suicidal ideation right now, and truth be told, it’s been many years since I’ve had any. My mental health this year in particular has been oddly good. But people call hotlines for a lot of reasons; “suicide hotline” is actually kind of a misnomer.