[13 May 2013]
It isn’t entirely clear if Airborne Toxic Event exists as a vehicle for Mikel Jollett to talk about girls or if girls exist for Mikel Jollett to write about them. Either narrative wouldn’t tell the whole story of Jollett’s band or their ambitious and troubling third LP, Such Hot Blood, but it would begin to narrow the frame a bit. This proves a less than original thesis for the genre, mainstream rock and roll, and the band, who first made their name with the little-single-that-could, “Sometime Around Midnight”, ostensibly about a woman who made the protagonist’s life completely miserable. Somehow in 2008 the pain and peril of that post-adolescent love song felt immediate and visceral, full of lines about a stomach in ropes and the drunken haze of wine, wandering the streets of East LA, though it could be, and was, anywhere. Such Hot Blood, with the exception of mid-tempo radio single, “Timeless”, a song about the death of Jollett’s grandmother, proves a dense, if not particularly revealing, meditation on modern romance. But here the stakes diminish, any hint of real danger gone, and the prestige, a glorious final reveal, noticeably absent.
The sound of Such Hot Blood mirrors the bloated, churlish and insouciant lyrical themes. Ranging from the intensely produced and layered—Jollett’s vocal on album single “Timeless” is a prime example—to the dull romance of plodding chamber pop, the record never manages to court either the emotive risks of their debut LP or the sonic go-for-broke approach of 2011’s All At Once, an album that really was about everything happening all of the time. Even the more restrained moments, “Bride & Groom”, a near melody copycat of All At Once‘s “The Graveyard Near The House”, and closer “Elizabeth” bear the brunt of missing the elegiac mark. “Elizabeth”, a song that Jollett penned for Elizabeth, a girl who accuses him of only writing “sad songs” instead of “love songs”, feels neither particularly sad, nor particularly heartsick. This proves a tough reality—or maybe a new normal—for Jollett, a talented and published writer who always seemed to have a gift for making the esoteric easily digestible, and the pedantic, vaguely holy. Such Hot Blood instead reads as a miasma of ham-fisted metaphors and visual similes coupled with musical impulses that neither enlighten nor challenge the listener.
The notable exceptions are “True Love”, a big, baroque shanty, and “Safe” who’s flickering string arrangement trends toward the propulsive material of the band’s last record. Both mark the most earnest impulse of the band, collective salvation like the group shout-along refrain in “True Love”. This is the old Airborne, a band who seemed willing to turn their individual implosions outward, a group of intensely magnanimous and gracious people, willing to share, maybe even experience, their pain and moral victories in public. “Elizabeth” resounds as the obvious counterexample, a song done by a singer for the purposes of getting a girl, the power of rock music turned into a big and melodic Valentine. His pain isn’t ours anymore, nor is it even his, the pitfalls of your 20s replaced with a string of anonymous and attractive women. “Elizabeth”, at least has a name, and a song written for her, though Jollett can’t or won’t return to the late-night, drunken vision quests through Silverlake, nor should he want to. He is older now and so are his original listeners. Much of the danger and mystery of those halcyon days has moved, thankfully, on. It just doesn’t make for great rock music.
If the best line in “Sometime Around Midnight” was “you just have to see her/you know that she’ll break you in two,” by 2013, you know who she is—it’s “Elizabeth”—and there’s no sense that she, or this music, had the power to fracture anything or anyone.