Opinion I A book and its mesmerising soundtrack
The Airborne Toxic Event’s new album is deeply personal. It's no coincidence that it complements the frontman’s riveting new memoir
There are two main reasons why I began to explore the Los Angeles-based band called The Airborne Toxic Event (TATE). First, of course, I was drawn to their interesting name, a direct reference to a section in Don DeLillo’s award-winning 1985 book, White Noise, in which a chemical spill from a railcar spews toxic fumes over a town. The second was a National Public Radio (NPR) podcast on which the TATE frontman Mikel Jollett was interviewed, and I heard his fascinating life story. There is a third reason too. And that was the fact that Hollywood Park, the band’s most recent album, is also the name of the memoir by Jollett, who was a writer, music journalist, and essayist before he became a full-fledged musician.
Jollett, 46, was born and raised in an experimental California commune called Synanon, a cult community where he and his brother were separated from their parents—he didn’t meet them till he was five years old. That community soon turned violent and Jollett and his brother had to flee with their parents. To add to that, their father was an ex-convict and ex-heroin addict and much of Jollett’s life was spent in poverty.
Hollywood Park, the memoir, is part fact and part fiction—and a most intriguing read. When it came out in May, it found a spot on The New York Times’ best-seller list in the first week. Hollywood Park, TATE’s new album, is like a companion piece or soundtrack for Jollett’s book.
It is the band’s sixth album and probably their best work till date. Autobiographical, cinematic and highly literary, Hollywood Park does what Jollett does best—it narrates stories. Jollett’s vocals aren’t particularly singular, nor is the music—full-blooded post-punk era indie rock—that the quartet lays down, but the lyrics make the songs stand out. At times, Jollett can seem influenced by Bruce Springsteen; at other times, he sounds surprisingly like The National’s Matt Berninger. But it is the deeply personal aspect of his highly literate lyrics that makes TATE somewhat unique. And that is what has found the band a rapidly growing legion of fans.
The title track is a reference to a horse-racing track where Jollett and his brother would spend time with their father. It’s a song with a massive, arena-filling soundscape and deeply personal words (For fifteen years I had lived in a room/ With my heart on my sleeve/ And my throat dry from heaving the words/ You can change, you can change/ If you’re ready to try). In Brother, How Was the War?, the narrative is a moody, brooding reflection on his years at the commune, where he was shut off from the outside world.
Jollett’s book explores his experiences of poverty, illness, addiction, and a difficult childhood. It’s a narration of how he explored his self, and his journey through those early years of his life. Jollett, who graduated from Stanford University, writes in a style that can easily transfix the reader. As he admitted in his interview with NPR, he has deployed the creative licence of mixing a bit of fiction with fact in the book and that makes it even more of a page-turner. TATE’s new album can be similarly mesmerizing, particularly if you are familiar with the backstory of the band’s frontman.
Even if you are not, TATE’s music is infectious. When their self-titled debut album came out in 2008, Pitchfork rated it a measly 1.6. But when I went back and heard it again recently, it seemed Pitchfork was perhaps a mite too harsh. On their debut, the band seemed to be trying to find their feet by trying out all sorts of post-punk era styles; they didn’t sound particularly original but they weren’t bad either. Over the years, and after a couple of more albums, they found their groove. By the time they released their fourth album, Dope Machines, in 2015, their sound had evolved into something more original, an Americana-meets-shoegaze sort of style. But it was always Jollett’s literary lyrics that set them apart.
They experimented musically too. On 2013’s Such Hot Blood, there are country and folk influences as the band tries to change the indie idiom that had permeated their earlier albums. But for those not obsessed with delving deep into a band’s oeuvre, TATE’s most compelling album has to be their latest. Throughout their career, TATE have been criticized as being too derivative, their sound too close to bigger acts such as Springsteen and The National, of course, but also to The Killers and Arcade Fire. Some of that criticism may be valid: If you listen to their early discography, there are moments when you can sense that they are a band borrowing heavily from some of those other successful bands. But on Hollywood Park, because Jollett goes the extra mile with his lyrics and the complementarity of the album with his book, TATE seem to have finally found their own special spot in the crowd. Jollett may sound like Berninger at times or early-era Springsteen, and even The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, but his words have always been the redeeming factor for The Airborne Toxic Event.
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