The Airborne Toxic Event’s Mikel Jollett Combines Music and Prose With ‘Hollywood Park’

Mikel Jollett was a writer long before he put his words to music as frontman of the Airborne Toxic Event. In his early years, he wrote for NPR’s “All Things Considered” and contributed a short story, “The Crack,” to an issue of “McSweeney’s,” where it appeared alongside work by the likes of Stephen King. It wasn’t until Jollett simultaneously underwent a break-up and found both his mother diagnosed with cancer and himself diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that he wound up engaged in a violent spurt of songwriting that eventually gave rise to the band. Indeed, even the group’s name boasts a literary origin, lifted from a passage in Don DeLillo’s “White Noise.” The Airborne Toxic Event emerged with their 2008 self-titled debut, riding concurrent waves of post punk and anthemic rock resurgence sweeping the globe. The band delivered an opportune sound that generally received a warm welcome, and proceeded to release four more sprawling albums, gradually setting themselves apart from their peers with touches that grew more prominent with every successive release. Violinist Anna Bulbrook lent an orchestral touch to the band’s dynamic that remains embedded in their sound even now that she has left the group. The band’s sixth album, “Hollywood Park” comes after a five year hiatus, and like their first album, was triggered by a personal struggle, in this case the loss of Jollett’s father. Returning to his literary origins, Jollett has released the new album alongside his first novel, Hollywood Park: A Memoir. Long term fans of the band will find their trademark tricks taking on a new dimension, as the central narrative gives the songs a new poignant potency. Those dismissive of the band’s theatrics early on might likely find themselves reconsidering, as the coinciding literary work serves to recognize latent proclivities in the music, and present it with a new lustre.   

One can only fully appreciate the album alongside the accompanying book, so it is important to at least have a gist of the surrounding story. Jollett was born into the California cult Synanon, a commune that presented itself as a treatment center for drug addiction, and grew steadily more erratic over time, eventually dictating that members shave their heads, and removed children from their parents at six months of age. Jollett found himself at a collective orphanage, and had to slowly piece together the details of his peculiar upbringing. The book hooks you instantly with Jollett’s ability to capture the voice of an innocent, confused child, balancing the somber story at the core with humorous details throughout. For instance, he recalls his mother constantly referring to “Thatasshole Reagan,” only to realize much later in life that the man’s first name was actually Ronald. He observes how people recoil from the word “cult,” and reflects on how even the letters of the word seem like they are trying to get away from one another, with the “t” holding its arms out. Upon reading the book, the scattered bits of poetry in Jollett’s songs take on a new depth, and what might have otherwise seemed like throwaway lines convey a wealth of meaning. 

Eventually, Jollett’s parents leave Synanon. Jollett meets his extended family, and sees a rotating cast of father figures enter and leave, as his unstable mother leaves him to construct a reality from seemingly contradictory scraps. At one point, cult thugs beat the latest boyfriend to a pulp in an attempt to track down Jollett’s parents. Eventually, Jollett finds refuge with his former heroin addict father and loving mother-in-law, and slowly comes to bond with his paternal figure, taking after him in certain ways, but simultaneously taking care not to follow in his footsteps. Jollett finds himself struggling with relationships, partly because of the baggage of his traumatic upbringing. He seeks solace through music and therapy, the end result of which comes in the joint literary and musical release of “Hollywood Park.” Each song on the album recreates a particular scene from the memoir, and Jollett assumes the voices of various characters, creating a soundtrack that gives the story shape and color.

From the first few moments of opener “Hollywood Park,” the Airborne Toxic Event sounds like a band that has nailed a particular rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic. This is the stuff of grand stadium gesture, from the propulsive stomp of resounding drums, the ringing, distorted guitars that strike just on cue, the gruff voice that tells a story of struggle in just its timbre, and lets out in anthemic bellows, with backing vocalists of varied voices chiming in to magnify the already majestic sound. Jollett wastes little time getting right to the heart of the story, singing, “A cry went out through the streets that night / ‘Cause we knew we’d lost our home,” tracing us through his peculiar childhood uncertainties, asking questions like “Who are all of these voices I’ve never heard?” and managing to spin it all into a decidedly triumphant strain of nostalgia.

“Brother, How Was the War” builds on the opener’s momentum, but sheds the primary colors for earthier hues, receding to a piano-led arrangement, with the titular line punctuating each verse, its timeless ring instantly conferring a dramatic richness upon the surrounding lyrics, eventually spurring on an epic chorus, in which Jollett’s soaring vocals reach gut-wrenching extremes, over a swooning blend of atmospherics, building to the climactic, encapsulating query of “When were we ever young?” “Carry Me” cleanses the palate, and places Jollett over a barebones acoustic guitar backdrop, left to a simple, winsome melody, his sonorous voice front and center. The track builds steadily, until Jollett is essentially screaming, adding a welcome bit of Freak Folk edge that pulls at the frays of the breezy acoustics at the core. from the opposite end of the stadium pomp that began the proceedings. Lyrics like “So carry me / Somewhere far away from this life that’s waiting here for me” might have the ring of generic motivational fodder, but in the context of the accompanying memoir, they are a cry for a dream that has been realized, and their sheer authenticity can be downright chilling. 

The band continues to effortlessly shift gears and naturally tap into different facets of eternal rock ‘n’ roll spirit. On “Come on Out,” Jollett eases back into the low register, and dons a sluggish swagger to a mobilizing tune, again stacked and stretched by spirited backing vocals that continue to add layers, until gospel outpourings, wispy flourishes and raging punk outbursts vie with one another in a hearty choir. The lyrics are full of vivid imagery that one can only fully appreciate in the context of the full story, but the way Jollett condenses all the poignant weight into the rallying cry of “Come on out with it” is enough to make for a memorable song. “I Don’t Want to Be Here Anymore” begins with the band taking a page from the Strokes’ playbook, as they have occasionally done, channeling everything from the distorted croon to the metronomic repetition and angular chords matched with twee melodies. Midways, they shift considerably closer to the domain of perhaps Future Islands, all bucolic angst-ridden paroxysms. Jollett’s father, a focal point since the opening track, emerges under special scrutiny here, as Jollett asks, “And now you want to be my father? / Tell me why’d you’d even bother?” before crystallizing the desperation hinted at earlier into the eponymous question.

Jollett’s memoir is primarily written from the perspective of a child, so much so that in early passages, we find the narrator trying to  make sense of such oddities as why one lady in the household insists on his calling her “mom.” Most of the song on the album, conversely, come across as nostalgic remembrances, reimagining childhood from adulthood, although the lines blur. “All the Children” stands out in this respect, as the inclusion of a children’s choir, as well as a melody of relatively childlike simplicity, has the effect of plunging you headlong into the narrative. Like many of the songs on the album, it captures broad themes in pointed lines, for instance “We grew up way too fast. / They stole our future. But they can’t steal our past.” On the downside, songs like this find the band letting their saccharine and histrionic tendencies hang unguarded, so if you’re the type to jeer at the theatrics of figures like, say, Bono, this might be a bit much to take. 

In due time, it turns out “All the Children” was only a tease, for come “Everything I Love Is Broken,” Jollett and crew fashion a tune that lives up to all the farcical drama of its title. Gaze sideways up at the stars, thrust at guitars in circular motions of violent passion, stare at whatever faces you as if you can see directly through it, and ponder in chorus, “Isn’t it strange how the seasons just pass?” Strings are especially well placed on this tune, over a poignant chord progression that gives way to thundering drums. Observations like “We were never young” are again deceptively simple at face value, but take on a wealth of meaning in the greater context. 

One thing that stands out about “Hollywood Park” is the judicious moderation of energy levels, the way that the band gives and takes, pursues and withdraws, in a way that makes for maximum impact, and allows refractory periods for emotions to properly settle and sink in. “All These Engagements” is a relatively light, jaunty number, and simultaneously perhaps the heaviest moment lyrically. Jollett reflects, “Everyone tells me the same thing every day… There’s a hole in your heart / Just go fill it with love,” before going on to ask repeatedly, “But what is love?” before his quandary escalates into a deranged howl captured alongside a serene bellow. By this point, the early childhood attempts to demystify one’s immediate surroundings have given way to frustrated stabs at life’s greater enigmas, and the lyrics follow suit, with the aforementioned queries leading into the anecdotal “The Place We Meet a Thousand Feet Beneath the Racetrack,” in which Jollett recalls an encounter with one Jane in just a few lines, over a string-laden, pastoral pastoral vignette, ending, “Can you remember when our hearts were open?”

Jollett demonstrates a remarkable vocal versatility throughout the album, boldly varying his accent and inflections, and managing to pull it off swimmingly. For “The Common Touch,” he adds a generous amount of twang to his delivery. Cool, contained musings give rise to crazed exclamations, carried by bursts of horns, as Jollett chases eternal questions, despairing, “Is it heroin? / Or Jesus Christ? / Big-ass books? / Or sleepless nights?” He gets rather verbose at moments, yet manages to pack in his sentiments elegantly, in a fine example of literary merit finding a musical outlet. Next comes a reprise of ““The Place We Meet a Thousand Feet Beneath the Racetrack,” in which the central melody is revisited with choral additions, and Jollett delivers a new short poem about confronting fear, and finding the beauty amid a struggle. It’s the perfect cue for another mobilizing arena rock number, and sure enough, along come an acoustic guitar and classic folk vocal harmonies, then a tambourine and bellows of realization on “True.” Pompous strings pick up on all the latent theatricality, and Jollett does a final sorting through troubles, lingering on the conclusive sentiment “I’ll see you again,” and ending on a gracefully open-ended note, “I’ll meet you in the dust.”

The Airborne Toxic Event are a band that excel in presenting rock ‘n’ roll clichés with deadpan delivery. It’s a skill that is simultaneously their greatest attribute and their chief cause for criticism. They mine rock history for charged signifiers, to ends that will make you either salivate or roll your eyes, depending on your persuasion. For the easily amused, wide-eyed dreamer who has dabbled in radio rock and loved it, the music is immensely satisfying, For the connoisseur, the critic, the cynic, and the skeptic, on the other hand, it can be an altogether laughable display. Fortunately, “Hollywood Park” is the type of release that just might win over even those unfortunate souls in the latter category. Whereas Jollett’s lyrics might alone seem empty and bombastic, the accompanying narrative, with its deeply personal journeys recollected in painstaking detail, allows one to appreciate the songs in all their anthemic zeal. Jollett maintains a distance in his recreations of scenes from the memoir, forcing the listener and reader to make the connections. The pages annotate the tunes, and the music gives rhythm to the prose.

Hollywood Park” is available May 22 on Apple Music. Mikel Jollett’s “Hollywood Park: A Memoir” is available May 26.