“Fear is unnatural. Lightning and thunder are unnatural. Pain, death, reality, these are all unnatural. We can’t bear these things as they are. We know too much. So we resort to repression, compromise and disguise. This is how we survive the universe. This is the natural language of the species.”
—Don DeLillo, White Noise
Like the man who wrote the novel that inspired their name, the Airborne Toxic Event can seem unforgivably pretentious to some and profoundly poetic to others. Also like Don DeLillo, singer/lyricist Mikel Jollett and his bandmates definitely consider themselves to be enlightened guardians of a steely-eyed emotional truth of the life-altering kind. For them, there is no repression, compromise, or disguise. Unswerving directness rules the day, every day; it is their natural language.
This tendency towards confessional earnestness in the band’s lyrics and ponderous dimensions in their music can be a weakness just as surely as it can be a strength. For all of his literary bona fides (he was a widely-published freelancer before forming the band), Jollett has a Bono-like affinity for attempting to shoehorn the entire collective traumatic energy of the human race into every skyward-reaching rock anthem. When this approach works (as it did on “Innocence”, the mood-swinging finale of the band’s self-titled debut), the results can be thrilling. But the risk is great, and the consequences of failure dire, the slightest miscalculation can lead to bloated, overwrought, and generalist nonsense.
For the Airborne Toxic Event’s first record, Jollett drew heavily from a quick succession of personal distresses: his mother’s cancer, an autoimmune disease of his own, a painful break-up. From Rumours to In Utero to Funeral, great rock records have often been born of such suffering and the existential qualms that result from it. If The Airborne Toxic Event was not even close to being a great record, it was at least a fascinating one, torn between elegantly-worded expressions of loathing and bad poetry of the disproportionately emotional sort. Indeed, the album’s greatest success, “Sometime Around Midnight”, combined the two in irresistible ways: vivid, hyper-real details dropping away into stumbling, articulate angst directed at the very pillars of human consciousness. It had much of the inebriated existential mystification of early Kafka, even if you sometimes wanted to shake the lyrical narrator silly and tell him to just forget the girl and move on.
All at Once is every bit as self-important as its predecessor, but its anxieties can sometimes feel rote and stretched beyond recognition. The kick-off title track immediately calls the debut’s opener “Wishing Well” to mind with its muscular, insistent rhythm and Jollett’s rolling enunciations. But the singular personal pronouns have gone collective, the biting detail washed away by waves of universalism. The single “Numb” embraces a grandiose nihilism; the messy complicated world that Jollett loves to evoke proves to be too much for him and he chooses to tune out and shut down.
This willful detachment seems especially incongruous when contrasted with his subsequent political/sociological lyrical outings. “Welcome to Your Wedding Day” sounds amazing, but is nonsense as thoughtful ideology. Jollett certainly intends for it to be a trenchant critique of the jingoistic, paranoid conflict-mongers of the American Right, but the word-images dissolve in the impressive sonics. It’s presaged by “The Kids Are Ready to Die”, which is engineered as an electric Irish lament for the victims of a war of the mind. It sounds and feels like a cyborg version of Pink Floyd’s “When the Tigers Broke Free” for a post-modern generation blissfully bereft of Anzio bridgeheads. It’s passionate but muddled, heroic in intention but naïve in practice.
The greater pleasures here are the simpler ones. First single “Changing” possesses some genuine (and rare, for this band) popped-collar swagger, to say nothing of its shameless Modest Mouse guitar quotes. “All for a Woman” is so understated in its romanticism, I’m still not sure if it’s hopeful or hopeless. “All I Ever Wanted” and “It Doesn’t Mean a Thing” are cut from the same cloth as the mostly forgettable upbeat numbers on the debut album, but are blessed with much more swing. And the latter does at least have a half-funny joke about a shotgun wedding. Humour is often overlooked by the grave rock artist Jollett, and even the slightest hint of it sparks unreasonable hopefulness.
All at Once‘s end point, “The Graveyard Near the House”, is a folky acoustic rumination on mortality and the entwined futilities of love, artistic expression, and of existence itself. Jollett layers the myriad ironies in his lyrics with barely-suppressed glee, relishing the way his meticulous paradoxes revivify (and completely upend) the moribund phrase “I will love you until I die”. It’s the kind of display that irritates almost as much as it impresses. It leaves me thinking that perhaps I’ve misjudged similar flourishes in other songs, or else that I haven’t judged them harshly enough. The Airborne Toxic Event has this effect, I find. They are as difficult to embrace or to adore as they are to dismiss or to ignore. Jollett and his bandmates are certainly tapping into something, even if that something can turn listeners off. But despite their failings, I really do think that this band can bear things as they are. And that is a rare gift.