The Sob in the Spine

October 24, 2014   •   By Cornel Bonca

I. That Guy

IT IS A TRUTH universally acknowledged that young male writers, in a shadowed corner of their dream selves, would much rather be rock stars. And not (just) for the girls, fame, and money. The thing is, if you’re a writer, you’re supposed to think, “I can’t even imagine not writing,” and “Writing’s not a choice, it’s what I do.” You’ve said such things a thousand times, and you know that if you don’t believe it in the rag-and-bone-shop of the heart, you’re dead. But writing is wicked rough: on the best days your creative juices can make you come away from your desk smelling like a barnyard animal; on the worst, nothing flows and it’s all Kafka: labyrinths of mind-sludge, dead-end isolation, bad shit all around. And because the proportions of workload-to-eventual-payoff are so unbelievably sad, you fight a constant war against cynicism (toward clueless editors, publishers, Philistinism in America), resentment (toward friends flourishing in finance or tech), and a competitiveness towards other writers that is just so self-demeaning. In the middle years of writing your book, doubts pervade your inner weather: you stew in them the way Manhattan subway riders marinate in July humidity. And so you think, oh, for a draught of vintage! That you might drink, and leave the world unseen! Or, failing Keatsian transport, if you could just execute a document dump — digitally toss your manuscript in the fire — flee your writing room and head down to a sweaty rock ’n’ roll club where walls rumble, beer flows, people dance, and — hey, look — there’s this guy on stage who’s screaming the secrets of his frustration, anger, and longing, and who’s found a way to do it that’s nearly as subtle and penetrating as your novel!

Plus it’s cathartic and sexy and fun.

And you say to yourself, “how do I get to be that guy?”

Well, say hello to Mikel Jollett, former prose man, now songwriter and front man for the LA-based rock band The Airborne Toxic Event. He’s that guy, and he can be your guide.

 II. The Chucking

For years, Jollett (pronounced zho-LAY) stewed in a room writing fiction before he chucked it all to become a musician. All his life he thought of himself as a writer — ever since his mother started taping his stories to the family fridge when he was five. Living in towns — sometimes in communes — up and down the West Coast with beatnik-cum-hippie parents who supported their young son’s creative ventures, Jollett and family ultimately settled in Westchester, Los Angeles, where he excelled at Westchester High, and got himself admitted to Stanford — the first in his family to get past high school.

His parents were working class but pumped Jollett full of ’60s-era idealism, which made for a shock when he got to Palo Alto. “There was a status orientation at Stanford,” he told me one afternoon at a café near his house in Silver Lake, “that I didn’t even know existed. I was not good at the game, I was just confused. My brother was in rehab by the time I was 15, my dad was a heroin addict before I was born, and these [Stanford] kids who grew up on golf courses were taking drugs and drinking. And I’m thinking, ‘you’re supposed to be curing cancer, what are you doing?’ I didn’t understand it. To get to Stanford, and meet all these people whose idea of education was that they were kind of over it? I just highly rejected that.” So he put his head down and studied hard, majoring in history and “just taking courses in whatever the fuck I wanted.” He had one rule, though: no English classes. He wanted to write, and “I thought it’d be cheating. I wanted to develop my own voice, and I didn’t want somebody to teach me tricks. It helped me develop my own perspective, and weirdly it made me more fearless. You know how trained classical musicians have real trouble riffing? Academically trained people in literature have trouble making shit up, letting go. It took me three or four years of writing to develop a voice that didn’t sound like a freshman English class, but once I did, I was free.”

One of the books that freed him was Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, which he read when he was 19. “The darkest book I’d ever read” to that point in his life, he says. “It’s entirely about sex and death. The scene where [Mickey Sabbath] masturbates on the woman’s grave is actually romantic, it’s one of the bravest scenes I’ve ever read. The idea that you could take an incredibly profane and secretive act and make you feel this guy’s hunger for this dead woman — that really resonated with me. There’s a direct line between that scene and my deciding to be a writer.” (Since then, he’s read all of Roth’s books “two or three times.”) From there, he took on Notes from Underground, Tender is the Night, Lolita, The Trial, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting — novels that were all over the map but which shared a creative fearlessness, books that exulted in their freedom from moral or aesthetic restraint. There were star student writers at Stanford — Nicole Krauss (whose work he avoided for a long time, but whose The History of Love he now counts as a favorite) and Time magazine’s Joel Stein were classmates — but he kept his own counsel, and after graduation drifted into teaching, volunteer work with kids, even Dilbert-y office work, while at night he stewed in a room writing.

For a while, he worked on a horse ranch in Texas, literally shoveling shit to pay for room and board while he slaved away at a “high-concept Vonnegut-ish sci-fi novel” (his description). By the early 2000s, things started to happen. He was publishing rock journalism, and became managing editor of Filter magazine, interviewing heroes like David Bowie, Lou Reed, and The Cure’s Robert Smith. He got a gig at NPR reviewing albums on the radio. He was hired by a magazine syndicate to write articles for their cadre of publications at some pretty sweet per-word rates. On the basis of a story called “The Crack” that he published in McSweeney’s, he snared David McCormick as his literary agent. Finally, he got word that he was accepted for a two-month residency at Yaddo, that most coveted of writers’ colonies, where the plan was to finish his novel and launch a literary career. “All these things were coming together,” he says. “I must’ve written two million words in five years.”

And then came the chucking. Living in a shabby Echo Park apartment — where he taped his favorite novels to the walls so that they’d be there to watch him write — he fell into that familiar writerly trough: brooding in his room, smoking and drinking too much, picking up his guitar to ease the stress. “And I kept asking myself, ‘why am I here? I want to be out, I want to be out anywhere.’” He found himself playing guitar more and more; soon he wasn’t writing prose; he was writing songs. He had friends — among them Steven Chen, a journalist who’d later become Airborne’s lead guitar player — and they’d go to rock shows in Los Angeles, and Jollett started feeling that universally acknowledged desire — “I felt like I have to be onstage somewhere.”

What finally pushed him out of the room for good was “this really bad week,” he told one interviewer, when “my mom got cancer, my girlfriend and I broke up, and I got diagnosed with this disease that can make you lose your hair or make your skin look patchy. Apparently the condition is made worse by smoking, and I was smoking two packs a day. It was a rough week.” So, confronted with pressing questions about sickness, death, and love, Jollett got to feeling that writing fiction wasn’t working for him; the idea of going to Yaddo made him feel like a “charlatan.” “In writing,” he told me, “you can juggle ideas in a way that’s complex and ironic and dense, but I realized I’m not interested in irony, and in music, what’s most satisfying is the direct emotional arc, the story that music tells right there in the moment, and that’s what I needed.” He wanted out of writing and in to rock music, simple as that. Rock music supplied the immediate cathartic charge and relief that writing didn’t. So he called up his agent and told him, “‘I’m not going to Yaddo.’ I knew I was all in. I was in a sprint. Everyone thought I was crazy.”

That same week, he met drummer Darren Taylor, and the idea of The Airborne Toxic Event was born.

III. Why The Band’s Not Called U3

Anybody who hung out in Silver Lake’s rock scene in 2006, when Airborne was building a fan base at clubs like Spaceland, wondered what was up with the band’s name. I came across their eponymously titled first CD at Rhino Records in Claremont, and thought, why would a rock band name itself as a shout out to Don DeLillo? I’d been teaching White Noise, that ruefully hilarious expose of the postmodern condition, for years, and the name made me suspicious. “I know,” Jollett admits, “sounds like some kind of Orwellian thing, right, or like some pretentious math-geek prog rock band.” But no: for Jollett, calling the band The Airborne Toxic Event had a precise, un-geeky purpose. Recall DeLillo’s novel: a third of the way through a narrative that’s all about delineating the ways main character Jack Gladney (and everybody in the novel) avoids confronting his fear of death, Jack and his family are forced to flee a poisonous cloud looming over their town when a railroad car full of toxic chemicals overturns and spews its contents into the sky. Suddenly, this “airborne toxic event” makes the prospect of death very real to Jack; he can’t avoid it anymore. The ATE, Jollett says, “is about how your life becomes more vital when you know you’re going to die. It’s literally a floating metaphor. It comes in and makes Jack Gladney’s life more poignant, more heavy — heavy in Kundera’s sense of, you know, heaviness of being. He suddenly knows life is finite. And from then on everything changes. The decisions he makes, his relationships, everything changes. And at the time I read the book, I was really obsessed with these ideas, and it seemed like a good thing to do to name the band after it.” Given his mother’s grave illness (she survived, by the way), his own health crisis, and the loneliness that comes after a breakup — the White Noise obsession makes sense.

Though he now has reservations about it — “I never thought we’d be as big as we are, or I would’ve named us something else, like U3” — the band name is spot on. In concert, Airborne is a lot of fun: Jollett tells stories, climbs stage rafters, jumps into the crowd, and the band cavorts and hops around making loud, sweaty, madhouse rock ’n’ roll — there’s none of the arty self-seriousness you think might plague a band led by a guy who talks about DeLillo and Kundera in the same sentence. But at the heart of Jollett’s songs is a grave moral humanism: over and over, they’re directed, as many of rock’s greatest songs are, at the enigma of self. Why am I so fucked up? How am I to cope with these feelings, act on them, while trying to be a decent man, a better man, a “gentleman,” as Jollett puts it in “Changing”? Most importantly, how do I live when I know mortality hangs over me like a hovering toxic cloud?

If you’re sentient, of course, you know that death hovers, all the time; but if you’re at all human, you trick yourself out of that knowledge 95 percent of the time. Art, literature, rock ’n’ roll — when it’s good — part of what they do is help/force you to confront the fragility of being alive at all. And Airborne is good.

IV. The Old Rock ’n’ Roll Alchemy

It’s too late now, but the best way for a novice to appreciate The Airborne Toxic Event would have been to go to San Francisco in mid-September, when they sold out a three-night residency at fabled Fillmore auditorium. (The next best way, for Angelenos anyway, is to see them at The Greek Theater on October 30.) Now, Airborne fans are a motley mix — you’ve got your East L.A. blue collar Hispanics, millennials whose iPods are stuffed with Arcade Fire and the Silversun Pickups, aging rockers on the hunt for the next Springsteen, thirtysomething housewives, even one percenters slumming for the night (I spent part of one show talking backstage to Apple founder Steve Wozniak’s wife Judy) — but their enthusiasm is universally maniacal. Half the audience was there for all three nights, and Airborne, eager to give good value, decided to play, each night, one of their three studio albums straight through, along with rarities, hits, and a few new songs. On night one, Jollett and the band (which includes, along with guitarist/keyboardist Chen and drummer Taylor, violist/keyboardist Anna Bulbrook and new bassist Adrían Rodríguez) galloped through their first album in all its frenzy, blare of massed guitars, frantic if disciplined rhythm section, and cache of guitar and viola solos that more or less force you to pull out the word “majestic” to describe them.

That’s all musical backdrop for a set of 10 of Jollett’s lyrics that present a novelistically detailed demimonde of (mostly) Los Angeles bars, coffee shops, clubs, bus depots, dark streets, bedrooms smelling of bourbon, cigarettes, and sex-dampened mattresses, and the high scorch of couples wailing at their demon lovers. On record, it feels like some millennial update of the Downtown L.A. world that John Fante handed us from the last century, or that the Minutemen gave us in their fractured shards of songs in the early 1980s: poor, dreamy, essentially good-intentioned young people desperate to fill gaping holes in themselves with drink, drugs, sex and, if the gods are kind, scraps of love. The opening track, “Wishing Well,” is replete with the kind of raging agitation that you find in the best punk rock — which, at The Fillmore, was how they played it — only it’s articulate, the roar of detail creating a nimbus of wild despair that makes it clear why the song’s speaker is dying to let go, let fate take over and turn him into “a coin that’s been tossed in a wishing well.” Only at the end of the song, he can’t do it: the wishing well becomes the place where his lover burns the ashes of his letters to her, making it clear that he can’t escape himself or the things he’s done. The whole album is like that: song after song gives us characters trapped by the necessity to enact the contradictions that define them. The choruses of the songs say it all: “I’m sorry, I really lost my head!” or “I’m such a mess!” or “I should’ve become a better man […] I swear there’s still some good in me / And I think if you stuck around you’d see / All the honest attempts at integrity, I once had.” “There are all these ideas in Airborne songs,” Jollett says, “about wanting to be a better man, and it’s all true, but you only feel that way if you feel like you’re constantly failing yourself. These characters always impugn themselves. That’s something I picked up from Roth, too: it’s like a first principle with him — always impugn your characters, dig inside their darkness and expose it.”

Take “Sometime Around Midnight,” one of the first night’s highlights and the song that put the band on the map (it was named iTunes alternative rock Song of the Year for 2008). It has the carefully amassed detail and structured plot that characterizes a short story. In it, the central character goes to a club where he meets an old lover for whom he still carries a very hot torch. When she walks up to him, “memories come rushing / Like feral waves to your mind / Of the curl of your bodies / Like two perfect circles entwined.” Those entwined perfect circles of lovers aren’t bad, but that “feral” is poetry: memories as emotions as waves as wild animals. Unexpected as it is, one gets it immediately, and in any case it sets us up for what the girl does next, which is “leaves … / With someone you don’t know / But she makes sure you saw her / She looks right at you and bolts / As she walks out the door/ Your blood boiling / Your stomach in ropes.” One line later the punishing crunch of power chords brings home the drama of the guy’s pain. And with an unerring sense that this story, and the pain, isn’t close to being over, Jollett has the guy careen out of the bar, the world spinning, while people watch him openly agonize out on the street. “You just have to see her,” he keeps yelling, even though “you know that she’ll break you in two.”

This is no ordinary heartbreak: lurking behind the rejection by this woman is a solitude so frightening that its source can’t be anything less than existential. Good rock ’n’ roll, of course, specializes in this: using the teen metaphor of “breaking up is hard to do” to point to the dread of adult loneliness, the fear of ending up — even dying — alone. And make no mistake about it, “Sometime Around Midnight” is good, even great, rock ’n’ roll. It’s dramatic, intelligent, immediate, cathartic, and for a writer who spent years locked in a room searching for the mot juste, it’s blessedly shareable. At the end of the first night, Jollett looked out at the audience churning in front of him, smiled and shouted, “Isn’t it great to be alive?” This, after playing “All At Once,” a rocker entirely about coming to terms with life in the face of the death of people you love. Watching his delight, I realized that Jollett realized that Airborne had done it — performed the old rock ’n’ roll alchemy: it took suffering, respected it by staring it in the face, and then fucking made it dance.

V. The Sob in the Spine

The morning after the show, sipping coffee at a Peet’s a few blocks from The Fillmore, I ask Jollett about the “great to be alive” comment. He nods and says, “you know, a great show is like the last night on Earth. That’s what I’m going for. If your excitement and engagement could be measured in light, and you can get a whole room full of people filled with that, it’d be a light that you could see from space. It’s like you’re up in space, right, and you’re looking down at the Earth, and you see this place over here in Kenya that’s all lit up, and there’s another one in Poland, all lit up, and then there’s this club in San Francisco. All lit up. They’re alive with excitement and engagement and energy. That’s a good show, and that’s the goal every night.”

How a good rock ’n’ roll show sparks both performer and audience into glowing incandescence is a mystery, and probably not something most rock stars are eager to probe — it’s enough to be able to generate it once in a while. But Jollett’s in a reflective, idea-nimble mood, and so he reaches back into literature — into Nabokov — to explain how it might work. He stumbles for the quote, but finally hits on it: “‘I don’t want to touch hearts […] I don’t even want to affect minds very much. What I really want to produce is that little sob in the spine of the artist-reader.’” He shakes his head. “That’s what I’m going for … that defines what I most want.” And he’s eager to unpack this little prescription: how Nabokov loved the idea that the spine is technically both brain and body, that the artistic effect occurs in the place where ideas themselves literally stimulate the body. “That’s rock ’n’ roll, right?” he says. “So a song hits the artist-listener in the spine so that, oh my god, you realize [the singer/songwriter] means that. Haven’t you had that experience where the singer is singing about something so specific and intimate and so personal that you didn’t know that anybody else ever felt that way? And you feel like I’m just this crazy person with these crazy thoughts which feel very real to me and they don’t get expressed by fucking sitcoms or pop music and you find it expressed in this song and it’s such a relief, a relief from anxiety, because all the singer was singing about was being human. And now the secret’s out and you’re not alone. Having had that experience with so many artists, I wanted to be an artist who could do that as well.”

Then there’s that word “sob.” “Perfect, right?” Jollett says. “It’s not shudder, or spasm, it’s sob of the spine.” A raise of the eyebrows is all he gives as commentary, as if it’s too precious a concept for him to dissect. So let me. On the tears continuum, “sob” is out there, beyond “whimper,” “cry,” or “weep”: it’s sadness that quakes through the body’s core and then finally gets released — it’s more internalized and contained than “wail,” say, but just as intensely felt. To strive to create music that induces that depth-dark sadness and then lights it up for all to see as something that’s “just human” is no small thing: it means finding the sob in yourself and communicating it. And to return to DeLillo, it means cutting through all the white noise and facing the airborne toxic event — the inevitability of death and all the fears, longings, and secrets we keep as we struggle with its presence.

Now, not every rock songwriter wants to go here. Few rock writers are capable, emotionally or intellectually, of going here — Matt Berninger of The National is; Win Butler and Régine Chassagne of Arcade Fire are, at least when they avoid sanctimony; and there are others we could argue about. Plus there’s a problem here, and it’s that communicating this stuff via traditional rock form isn’t as easy as it used to be. “Authenticity,” “honest emotion,” even “being human,” are notoriously easy to fake in rock: for every Pearl Jam, a Stone Temple Pilots; for every U2, a Coldplay. Lots of rock bands create more or less credible simulacra of meaningful sincerity, but dig deeper and most of the music collapses into lyrical obscurity, cooled-out posing, twee soft-headedness, ironic evasion, or outright bullshitting. The strength of Jollett’s music is that he doesn’t bullshit: onstage and on the page, there’s no ironic detachment; his intelligence is focused, heated, and up-front sincere — the models he evokes often are John Lennon and Springsteen, the man means it.

VI. Sub Specie Aeternitatis

The song that prompted Jollett’s “Isn’t it great to be alive?” comment closed the first show and opened the second. “All At Once,” the second album’s title track, is the song that takes death and how we cope with it as its explicit theme, and it’s one of the band’s five best songs. Between the first and second albums, Jollett says, “three of my grandparents and my uncle died. I was literally the guy who took the tube out of [my grandmother’s] mouth and we said, ‘she’s dead.’ After that, death was real to me in a way it never had been before.” The opening and closing songs of All At Once put death right at the center of things: “All at Once” and “The Graveyard Near the House” are exactly about what his band’s name is about; they’re about how “your life becomes more vital when you know you’re going to die.” In front of a rumbling beat and a deep-echoed, glistening rock sound that recalls U2’s How To Make An Atomic Bomb or The Cure’s Disintegration, Jollett’s voice — a deep-chested baritone that he worked months and months to strengthen during Airborne’s early period — infuses “All At Once’s” broad philosophical perspective with a passionate dignity:

We were born without time
Nameless in the arms
Of a mother, a father, and God

He begins, painting a picture of a protected childhood that, as lovely as it is, inevitably crashes into adulthood: 

And then we longed to be loved
In the rush, we become
Some things we thought we’d never be […]
And all those evenings swearing at the sky
Wishing for more time
All the promises we broke when we tried
Just wastin’ our time

A barrage of guitars comes down here, an aural reminder of childhood’s end, when the fairy tales of innocence — the easy joys and freedoms that come with parental protection — get replaced by the hard realities of solitude, failed love, and looming mortality. Jollett, singing in barrel-chested baritone, drives the theme home:

We get old all at once
And it comes like a punch
In the gut, in the back, in the face
When it seems someone cried
And our parents have died
Then we hold on to each other in their place
And I feel the water risin’ around us

These waters are either floodwaters or baptismal waters — adulthood is sink or swim. The second night at The Fillmore, “All At Once” felt baptismal. I’ve seen the band perform a dozen times in three different states, and though the song’s always a highlight, this night the bouncing crowd roared those last lines (Airborne crowds know all the words) like they know rock ’n’ roll redemption when they hear it. Use any metaphor you want: spines were sobbing, the suffering were dancing, the place was alive, lit up, and visible from space.

The album’s finale, “The Graveyard Near the House,” begins as an acoustic guitar ballad, with Jollett singing with only Anna Bulbrook at his side. As the song proceeds, the rest of the band sneaks onto the darkened stage to take up a subtle, eerie accompaniment. As intimate a song as he’s ever written, the lyrics return to prose storytelling, but the images have the impacted potency of poetry. In it, the song’s protagonist, answering his lover’s worry that their love will someday die, conjures up a droll, gruesome image:

And so I pictured us like corpses, lying side by side in pieces in some
Dark and lonely plot under a bough.
We looked so silly there all decomposed, half turned to dust in tattered
Clothes, though we probably look just as silly now.

It’s as if he’s telling her, “You want endless love? I’ll give you endless love!” But the gallows humor barely takes the edge off the heaviness of the song, the fact that it puts the relationship sub specie aeternitatis — under the aspect of eternity — and in that light, the protagonist meditates on a genuinely complex love, filled with recrimination, falsity, fear and distance as much as tenderness, intimacy, and joy. Still, after all that, he insists that “I’ll love you ’til I die” — his very commitment to her a function of his realization that both he and she are mortal creatures struggling in the dark.

VII. In Which Jollett Plays with His Synthesizers

Night two is the highlight of the residency. On night three, Airborne starts by performing Such Hot Blood, and though it has some strong material — “The Secret,” “Safe,” “Bride and Groom,” and “This is London” — it’s too conservatively arranged (especially the drums), it’s slower and less intense, and contains a single, “Timeless,” another song about confronting death, which frankly pales next to “All At Once” or “Graveyard.” Steven Chen calls Such Hot Blood their “classic rock record; we sound like we could have come from the ’80s,” and that may account for it being a slightly disappointing seller and a holding action in the band’s career ascent. Which made me pay more attention this night to the new songs, ones that have come out since Such Hot Blood’s original American release, particularly “The Way Home,” a bonus track on the British version of Such Hot Blood, and “Wrong,” the just-released single from Dope Machines, the new album dropping early next year.

“The Way Home” sounds like both a summation of Jollett’s experience as a rock writer and musician, and a personal turning point for him.

“The guy in that song is up in the middle of the night, a million thoughts in his head,” he explains to me at Peet’s.

“That’s not just that song,” I laugh, “that’s all your songs.”

“I know,” he nods, “trying to express that experience is probably why I started the band.”

True enough, but the outcome of meditating on those million thoughts in “The Way Home” is the refrain, “I just know I can’t live like this no more.” I ask, “Is that just a character talking, or is there more to it than that? A sense that things have to change? That you can’t live like this no more?”

“Absolutely,” he says. “I made a bunch of decisions where I just wanted to fucking break away from the past. I’ve been in this touring rock band for six years now, and so much of your life is spent in very confusing circumstances. You’re isolated from your family, you’re isolated from your closest friends, and your primary experience of joy comes from this idolatrousness of fans. It kind of warps you, and it takes a while to learn what about it’s real and what about it’s not real. I had to just change my priorities and the way I approach relationships. In my line of work, there’s these potholes, like having a huge oversized ego, or becoming isolated, or learning to guard yourself and putting on a mask that has nothing to do with who you are, and I was just determined not to fall into them. I don’t want to live like that.”

His decision to break away may have something to do with the changes the band’s undergone lately. The first concerns the band’s change of record labels, from Island Def Jam to Epic, where they’re happily reunited with L.A. Reid, the man who originally signed them to Island and who, after moving on to Epic, snatched them up when their deal with Island ended. More important is Jollett’s musical evolution. After the Such Hot Blood tour, he holed up in his house in Silver Lake for a year, determined to break out of “that orchestral folk-based rock” sound that people associate with Airborne. Whether that determination to change the band’s sound had anything to do with the firing of bass player Noah Harmon, who, after Jollett, had probably been the most instrumental band member helping craft the old sound, is something Jollett and the band have decided not to talk about, “out of respect for Noah.” Whatever the case, the band’s new sound — emotionally charged electro-pop — was Jollett’s exclusive purview. “I fucking started from scratch. I spent months programming beats with CS-80s and Jupiter 8’s” — analog synthesizers whose heyday was actually in the ’80s — “and Moogs. I spent a lot of time with beats and keyboard sounds and stacking things together and putting different musical environments side by side. I think [the upcoming album] is the first record where I thought more like a musician and less like a writer.” He wrote, arranged, and, for the first time, produced the album himself, and even played the lion’s share of the parts. The album, he says, is as big as shift for Airborne as OK Computer was for Radiohead.

The only evidence we have for this big shift, so far, is “Wrong.” Two other cuts from the forthcoming album — “California” and “Dope Machines” — have appeared in concert versions on Youtube, but since those renditions are live, whatever studio wizardry Jollett’s applied to them isn’t apparent: they’re recognizable (and excellent) Airborne. “Wrong,” however, sounds new — not OK Computer new, maybe, but the sound is, from what I can tell, entirely built from synthesizers; Airborne’s indie-based rock (rhythm and lead guitar, bass, drums, with keyboard and viola overlays) has been replaced with layers and layers of catchy synthesized melodies, programmed dance rhythms, ostinatos everywhere, Jollett’s multiple-tracked voice, and no guitars. The Airborne faithful — the fan blogs and message boards — though an ever-supportive bunch, are clearly nervous about this turn of events, but they don’t need to be. Because if you listen closely — headphones help — the emotional core of the song is pure unreconstructed Airborne Toxic Event. It’s all there in Jollett’s vocal, which starts with a delicate vulnerable falsetto in the verses and transitions to a powerfully ragged roar on the choruses.

The song seems to emerge from the recognition Jollett had on “The Way Home,” that “I just can’t live like this no more.” Here, the song’s speaker feels like he’s lived his whole life wrong — “All my young life/ I’ve been trying to say / Just one thing right” but now he has a woman in his arms, and he finds himself speechless. All those years learning to speak, to write, to “watching the fire light” that consumes his imagination (and conceivably separates him from flesh and blood people) don’t mean much if he can’t open himself to intimacy and love. The song impugns the character with a vengeance — Jollett screams the song’s most vital (and self-lacerating) line — “I believe I was wrong!” — in a way that takes the sob in his spine (and the grief, shame, and frustration that created it) and plants it directly in the listener’s. If Jollett’s decision to stop writing prose in order to provide intense emotional arcs in music that are as powerful as what writers are able to do, he’s done it again in “Wrong.” Let Jollett play with his synthesizers all he wants, I say, as long as he can create moments like this. “Wrong” proves that no matter how much a musician and soundscaper Mikel Jollett has become in the years since he left prose writing behind, you can’t take the writer’s passion out of him — the one that needs to provide, as Roth put it in The Anatomy Lesson, “an antidote to suffering through a depiction of our common fate.” So, maybe the writer is still stewing in his room after all, and rock ’n’ roll is all the better for it.


Cornel Bonca is Professor of English at California State University, Fullerton. He is the author of Paul Simon: An American Tune (Rowman & Littlefield)