Review Summary: Emerging from the wreckage, stronger than before.
Mikel Jollett has had a pretty rough life. Prior to the release of his band’s self-titled debut, The Airborne Toxic Event
, his mother died from cancer – and then in the same week, he was diagnosed with a genetic autoimmune disease and his long-time girlfriend dumped him. We marveled at the passion that emanated from soaring rockers like ‘Sometime Around Midnight’, but even at that time, we had no idea how deep the pain actually went. Coming off of a five year layover with sparse activity, Jollett is now back with The Airborne Toxic Event and their sixth LP Hollywood Park
, released as a pair with his memoir of the same name which details his childhood upbringing in a cult. On top of all this, his father recently died. Some people seem to get all the worst breaks, and Jollett is one of them.
The silver lining to all of this is that Jollett has always been inspired by tragedy. The Airborne Toxic Event were at their best early in their discography when Mikel was enduring some of the aforementioned trials. As time healed things for Jollett, you could feel each subsequent release losing a bit more fire until we reached 2015’s Dope Machines
– which compared to anything else the band had ever done, just felt soulless. They did partially redeem themselves with the second half of that double LP, titled Songs of God and Whiskey
– an all acoustic album that isolated Mikel’s voice and managed to once again highlight his strengths as a songwriter. After fading into oblivion for five years, The Airborne Toxic Event have come roaring back with arguably their greatest offering to date.
sees a return to the pain and passion upon which The Airborne Toxic Event was founded. It may sound morbid, but Jollett is never more convincing than when he’s enduring personal tragedy, and this record is rife with it. The six-and-a-half minute opener laces grandiose, Bruce Springsteen-styled Americana with the sort of melancholic, intensely nostalgic lyrics that define the heart and soul of the record: “I never claimed I knew how it would end, or the order of the horses at the bend / All I knew is I would be back again - and we’d stand here as the world fell apart, at Hollywood Park.” The song serves as something of an overture for this emotional opus, recalling the album’s namesake as well as the location that he and his father spent the most of their time together – a race track for horse betting where, when his dad was out of prison, they would go together on long day trips. Jollett recalls such moments during the record’s opening verses in fond, grainy detail: “We would laugh as the horses thundered by, and I would tip my brand new hat up to the sky / And nothing could come between you and I as the horses ran wild through the dark, at Hollywood Park.” It’s immediately clear that Jollett loved his father despite their strained relationship, and that this song is a homage to his life.
The entire album can be found within the same realm of wistful reminiscence, although the majority of it is less heart-warming than the title track. ‘Brother, How Was The War?’ appears to be told from the perspective of Jollett’s father from prison, writing to his brother who is fighting in the Vietnam War: “I saw a bit of news today, I thought maybe I would drop a line / She asks me all the time, she says ‘Is he still alive?’ / McCarthy says we're winning hearts and minds / But your brother just hopes you make it back alive / They say I make parole in sixteen weeks, I don't know, I'll try my best…Brother, how was the war?” It’s a bit drabber than the boisterous rock n’ roll of the opening track, bringing things down a few notches with Mikel’s poignant cries and classical piano brushstrokes. ‘Carry Me’ delves into his drug use as a vessel to escape the horrors of his past: “Carry me somewhere far away from the noise on this damn TV, from the needle and the spoon in front of me / Wait and see when the drugs take effect / But I don't know what I'm trying to run from.” Musically, the track takes a page from Songs of God and Whiskey
with its heavy acoustic strums and Jollett’s slow-build to the sort of wails and shouts that have always defined his career. Three tracks in, Hollywood Park
is shaping up to be every bit the memoir-accompanying mirror into Jollett’s soul that it was intended to be.
As we cross into the midsection of the record, the songs continue to feel like a collage of scenes from his book: from the time he ran away from home at age eleven on the rhythmic, bass-driven lead single ‘Come On Out’ to the time he and his father finally fled the famous Synanon cult in which he was raised – detailed in ‘I Don’t Want To Be Here Anymore’: “Our faces frozen on the highway, no turning back, no turning back / It's just you and me, kid, against the world, now / They're after us, they're after us”. Elsewhere, he laments frivolous engagements (“There's a hole in your heart, just go fill it with love / As they grasp at a future and promise it will be joyful and fruitful, ‘We're better as two’ / But what is love?”) on the moody-ballad-turned-grungy ‘All These Engagements’, and figuratively revisits the horse track with his late father on ‘The Place We Meet A Thousand Feet Beneath The Racetrack’, as well as its reprisal version, and asks him one last question: “The final question I could ask when it's only you and I – ‘Were you ever scared like me, your heart in tatters?’ / You said, ‘Son, just let it be, like rain on flowers”. While the lyrics are not necessarily always
penned in the most uniquely poetic of ways, it’s his delivery that sells their authenticity.
By the end of Hollywood Park
, it’s clear that Jollett has finally reached a stage of acceptance about his upbringing, his troubled past, and his dad’s untimely demise. He sings of his father on ‘True’, “You're never really off my mind / It's true you were my best friend, we needed each other in the end” to a symphony of fluttering strings, and ultimately concedes: “I'll see you in the dust”. The music sounds spiritual and uplifting, something that we don’t witness a whole lot of on Hollywood Park
. While it’s doubtful that Jollett will ever fully leave his past behind, he does seem to have turned the page to a wide-open future. He admits that his past made him who he is, and he treasures these memories – no matter how painful. That’s the point of Hollywood Park
– both the memoir and the album – to allow us to see life through his eyes. Through delicate personal confessions and surging moments of intensity, Hollywood Park
does exactly that with a sort of urgency that only The Airborne Toxic event could deliver. Not unlike Jollett’s life, The Airborne Toxic Event has seen its share of ups and downs. However, both Jollett and his band seem to have emerged from the wreckage stronger than before. This is Jollett and his band accessing their very best traits while achieving a sense of resolution, and it’s a gorgeous thing to behold.