Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Bird
By Cornel BoncaApril 4, 2015
THE LOGO for LA rock band The Airborne Toxic Event is a black bird, flying alone through an arid winter sky, that’s been shot through with an arrow and is spraying blood out of its right side. If you’re of a literary cast of mind (which is okay to impose on Airborne, since they named themselves after a section of DeLillo’s White Noise, and lyrical references to Vonnegut, T. S. Eliot, Irwin Shaw, Milan Kundera, and others abound), it might remind you a little of Ted Hughes’s Crow, “a black rainbow / Bent in emptiness / over emptiness / But flying.” As a band logo, it’s not bad — sure beats Jaggerian lips or Germanic lettering and misplaced umlauts. In fact, it’s spot-on: avoiding the self-consciously tragic sentimentality that rock bands are wont to fall into when they treat Big Issues, the wounded black bird is a pretty accurate emblem of the lyrical obsessions of Mikel Jollett, Airborne’s songwriter and front man, which distill to something like this: aspirations of transcendent flight (toward love, mostly) struggling to neutralize a desperate, nearly paralyzing fear of solitude and death.
Yes, I know: they’re only a rock ’n’ roll band.
In late February, The Airborne Toxic Event simultaneously dropped two full-length albums. The “official” album, Dope Machines, released by Epic, is a sonic departure from Airborne’s Springsteen/postpunk/Cure-influenced indie rock: it’s meticulously crafted, highly melodic synthesizer-plus-beat-machine pop rock, produced, written, and mostly played by Jollett himself. The second, Songs of God and Whiskey, announced for release on the band’s website the night before Dope Machines came out, collects 10 previously unrecorded songs, some old, some new, and sounds like the band rented a big room, filled it with mostly acoustic instruments, some leaky mics, a crateful of cheap-ass wine, whatever recording equipment was lying around, and hastily banged out some lo-fi tunage just because it was fun. To die-hard fans, Dope Machines is a shock that crosses a lot of lines: virtually a solo album by Jollett, it uses outside musicians and backing vocalists, an outside-the-band co-writer on one song, and defies the ethos the band’s been stuck with since their beginnings in 2006 — that they’re a family, “like the Waltons,” as bassist Noah Harmon once told me in 2013. (Ironic, that, since Noah has since been fired.) For those fans, Songs of God and Whiskey is a relief: it’s old-school, folk-tinged Airborne and a true band album, replete with Anna Bulbrook’s lovely viola solos and fills, Steven Chen’s crisply efficient guitar lines, the smart propulsive rhythm section of Daren Taylor and new bassist Adrian Rodriguez, and Jollett all over the place, tossing out lyrics angry and sweet, melancholic and hilarious, in a voice that ranges from a deep bass that rivals the dude from Crash Test Dummies (the “Mmm Mmm” song”) to his strong natural baritone to a delicate and surprisingly affecting falsetto.
It’s possible that the band recorded Songs of God and Whiskey, at least in part, to assuage fans jittery about the musical direction Dope Machines implied. Me, I don’t care. Both modes — the high-gloss ’80s synthesizer sound of Dope Machines, the five-friends-in-a-room-drinkin’-and-playin’ sound of Songs — are fine by me, as long as that black bird’s in the songs. And it is, in every damn one.
For example: on Songs of God and Whiskey, there’s “The Lines of the Cars,” an acoustic folk rocker driven by Bulbrook’s viola and a subtle piano underpinning. The song’s speaker is pretty obviously Jack Gladney, the death-haunted narrator of DeLillo’s White Noise, and the title refers to the novel’s opening, in which Jack watches a line of station wagons as it winds through an exclusive college campus heading toward the dormitories where students will be dropped off for the new school year. In the book, it’s satire: the station wagons are stuffed to the gills with the gaudy possessions of elite kids. In the song, Jollett has Jack note the kids’ “hopelessly young faces” and their innocence of “the sting of these horrible [death] fears” that haunt both Jack and his wife Babette. (These kids are too young to be haunted.) In the novel, the fear of death is all-consuming, and not even love can mollify it. Jollett, more romantic than DeLillo can afford to be, holds out love as balm, and has Jack assure Babette that “I can feel you in me like my heartbeat and bloodstream in turns.” The song is practically a template of Airborne’s black-bird themes: the solitary self crossing the vastness of psychic space to assuage its fear of death by connecting with someone else.
On the first track of Dope Machines, a shimmering synth-driven rocker called “Wrong,” a man — a character who I’ll call the Jollett Guy — is in bed, staring, puzzled, at his lover, and sings in a fluttery-vulnerable falsetto:
All my young life
I’ve been trying to say
just one thing right.
Now we’ve come to the day.
You’re here in my arms,
I don’t know what to say.
On the album’s penultimate song, “Something You Lost,” a track whose eerily romantic atmosphere evokes the soundtrack music from the old Twin Peaks, there’s the Jollett Guy again. He’s still in bed with the lover, but now he knows exactly what he needs to say, and it’s as simple, difficult, and frightening as this: “Please don’t ever leave. Please don’t ever go” — which Jollett sings with so much heart that it’s as if his entire career as a singer and songwriter has been leading to this moment. In between these two songs, the guy is presented with a full panoply of obstacles that prevent him from getting to the point where that kind of open-souled pleading is possible. Some of the obstacles are technological — the texting miscommunications in “One Time Thing” that make him finally scream, “Why don’t you tell me what you mean!?”; the computer “screens” of “Dope Machines” whose simulacral effects turn people into default ironists incapable of sincerity. Some have to do with LA itself, as in “California,” where the presence of Hollywood mythology makes everything either woozy gorgeous daydream or apocalyptic nightmare; or, in “Chains,” where LA is imagined as an emotionally and spatially disorienting place “with no center / And no edge / And no end.” But the most glaring obstacles are, of course, personal, and often have to do with the Jollett Guy’s feelings of cowardice and shame. Eighty percent of Jollett’s songs are relationship songs, but it’s rare for him to blame the women when things go wrong. His target is himself: “I fucked it up as I always do” comes from a song on Songs of God and Whiskey, but it applies here too, and what fucks him up is a double-sided fear. One side fears solitude (and the looming thoughts of mortality that attend it) so much that he throws himself into love to neutralize it. The other side fears being known once he’s inside a love relationship, a fear that his secrets, his pettiness, his own peculiar darkness, will be exposed, and the fear’s so strong that it makes him run, which verifies his cowardice and increases the shame. By this reckoning, the one who shot the black bird is the black bird.
There are basically two locales in a Mikel Jollett song, from which emanate most of the drama of his songwriting. The first is a bed, usually damp with anxiety, with one person in it, the Jollett Guy who suffers from acute bouts of loneliness owing to his fear of solitude as well as his regrets over screwing up a relationship he still feels hope for. The second is also a bed — this one damp from lust, anger, frustration — with two people in it, the Jollett Guy plus a woman, who together manage to run the gamut of love’s elations and despairs, the balance tilting toward the latter. Over both beds floats — hangs — the black bird, and the scenarios that spin out from these beds share a consistent set of images, metaphors, themes: secrets and lies are big, as are screaming arguments, slammed doors, fierce words spoken in anger that linger forever; there are fervently written letters delivered and undelivered, howls of drunken rage outside crowded bars, long midnight drives in the hills, anxious grapplings with mistakes and attempts to remedy them; lovers making up under warm covers listening to music; girls (sometimes in white dresses, sometimes nude) dancing demurely, couples staring at one another in wonder, aching promises spoken in graveyards to “love you till I die.” And what’s odd about all this is that it never sounds overheated: sounds like a lot of people I’ve known.
But Airborne’s also funny, which is of course a hallmark of real seriousness. If you’re gonna keep a bloody black bird as a companion, you better be able to laugh the fucker off when you need to. From Songs of God and Whiskey, there’s “A Certain Type of Girl,” a song that is pure country-bumpkin, three sweet-dumb chords behind a vocal about a befuddled hayseed — the Jollett Guy, Deep South version — who wishes to high heaven he’d listened to his dad when he warned him about a “certain type of girl,” which just happens to be the type that Jollett Guys always go for. But the humor isn’t just in the words: in “Change and Change and Change and Change,” also from Songs, a rollicking horn section bursts in halfway through the song, just as Jollett complains, “So I fucked it up as I always do / I was born to be alone,” and it’s hilarious. However “dark” Jollett’s lyrics are, the songs rarely get lugubrious (an exception on Songs is probably “April Is the Cruelest Month,” the weakest song on either album), and in concert the band is high-spirited, fun, rockin’. Rock ’n’ roll’s great secret is metamorphosis through screaming contradiction: you hear an irritated guy shout “I can’t get no satisfaction” and you never felt so satisfied; you hear a snarled “No future for you!” and the future opens up like you just tore a gaping whole in a wall with a sledgehammer. You hear Jollett shout “I just want to be numb,” from “Numb,” the band’s great non-hit single from the second album All at Once, and you’re as alive as you’ve felt all day.
Speaking of non-hits, I don’t understand why The Airborne Toxic Event isn’t as huge as, say, Arcade Fire or The Black Keys. They’ve had three indie/alt-rock “hits” (“Sometime Around Midnight,” “Changing,” and “Hell and Back”), but they haven’t crossed over to Top 40 radio, and the band plays to crowds that range from about 1,000 fans to maybe four or five times that. (They recently showcased at the Greek Theatre in LA and couldn’t quite sell it out.) The two new albums are not burning up the charts. “Wrong,” Dope Machine’s first single, started fast, then faded. But if you caught it on the radio, it sounded great — big, stirring, ardent as hell — as “Numb” did before that. Their songs are unfailingly melodic, if not hooky; they’re tightly constructed, well played, and passionately, intelligently sung. Jollett’s a charismatic front man who, when he plays big-crowd festivals, has no trouble putting himself and the band across. Some of their best songs — “All at Once,” “Innocence,” “All I Ever Wanted,” “Half of Something Else,” “The Storm,” “Wishing Well,” and a whole slew of the new songs — are anthemic in the best sense: they sound like they’d play better in an arena, where the big sound would put across the black-bird sentiments in a way that I’d think would be seriously cathartic for everybody. But the band’s not huge: they’re a midlist act on a big label, and Imagine Dragons and Florence and the Machine outsell them by a mile. I’ve talked to Jollett about this, and he says he doesn’t care. Maybe he doesn’t, but I’m an old-time believer, and I always felt the world was a slightly better place to live in because everybody knew the words to “Help,” or “Running on Empty,” or “Rock the Casbah,” or “Born in the U.S.A.,” or “Losing My Religion,” or “Jeremy,” or “Lose Yourself.” It’d be an even better place if they knew “All at Once” or “The Graveyard near the House” too. I think I mean that.
(“California,” from Dope Machines, is the most radio-friendly thing Jollett’s ever written — it’s like great Don Henley [that’s not a joke: there is great Don Henley] — and it’s just been released as a single. If it hits the way it ought to, section 8’s moot.)
Either album could’ve been called Songs of God and Whiskey. Every album The Airborne Toxic Event has ever done could’ve been called Songs of God and Whiskey. The whiskey part of it’s easy: like every red-meat rock band, Airborne's songs are peppered with references to intoxicants: mescaline, cocaine, pills, pot, rye whiskey, vodka tonics, beer, "cheap ass wine,” etc. And we all know what “whiskey,” broadly conceived, is for: it’s, to bend a metaphor, another kind of dope machine, a powerful way to drown out fear, and the Jollett Guy is good at that. As for God, well: Mikel Jollett wasn’t raised into a particular faith, but he comes largely from Italian and Jewish stock, and besides guilt, what neither Italian nor Jew can ever completely get rid of is a looming intimidating God. On the two new records, God is cursed, appealed to, challenged and, at one particularly vulnerable point, called “unkind,” and it’s not a stretch to say that Jollett’s romanticism is pretty much "spilt religion,” spiritual aspiration re-directed at heart and flesh. But God is never quite absent in these songs. In DeLillo’s The Falling Man — there’s DeLillo again — “God is the voice that says, ‘I am not here.’” And it’s the uncanny rumble of that voice echoing in the sky that flutters through the black bird’s wings.
The Jollett Guy, by the way, is different from the main line of rock ’n’ roll’s desperate characters: far from dressing himself up as a rebel, he wants to be good, always hoping stand-up behavior can un-wound the black bird. He feels like a shit and a coward a lot of the time, but he longs to be a “gentleman” (“Changing”); he longs to be “the good man who stays behind” (“Graveyard”); he tells himself “it’s time to be a man” (“Time to Be a Man”); and there’s this, from “Change and Change […],” sung with frantic funny sincerity:
But I’m trying every morning that I wake up to stand up straight
To always tell the truth, and give back more than I take
To be kind and pure, less fucking scared of everything
I love this guy. The moral sensibility is rock with a tortured conscience — in the Springsteen line — but there’s some Merle Haggard in there, a guy who can hardly believe he inhabits his own body, not to mention his own mind, fucking him up the way they do.
One way you can tell an album’s good is that it doesn’t frontload its best songs, tacking the weaker stuff onto the end. Airborne’s always had enough confidence to believe listeners would see their albums through to the end. On both new albums, they’ve gone one better: they’ve saved the best stuff for each CD’s second half. Songs of God and Whiskey starts strong — “Poor Isaac,” the album’s sole barn-burning rocker, is a take on the Isaac and Abraham story that begins in Kierkegaard country, takes a side trip on Dylan’s Highway 61, and ends with Jollett’s turbulent humanism — and only gets stronger. By track seven, we get “Strangers” — a beguilingly sweet folk rocker about love and loss that comes with three charming melodies (verse, chorus, and bridge), a big funny-sad vision, and a bridge where the Jollett Guy hallucinates his lost lover:
I saw you last night in the cell where I sleep
Your shyness was such a surprise
And you said: “I hold you in me like a secret I keep,
The truth of that moment defies
All that we know, everywhere we go.”
It’s a gorgeous moment about the faith that love’s loss can leave a profound effect, and it’s so vivid for the Jollett Guy that he has another vision, this one an affirmative one in which, despite the fact that the lovers are no longer together, he can put aside his pain and fear and embrace the sublimity life sometimes offers:
Until all the walls fall, we’ll just keep being strangers
And the world will re-arrange us, into things we never planned to be
As the sun rises around us and continues to confound us
Its beauty will surround us and share its light with everything.
For the moment, the black bird soars, wound be damned.
“Strangers” is a high point, but it hardly drops from there. “Why Why Why,” a tune whose tender lyrics are so perfectly set into a long melody line that it rivals master melodist James Mercer’s work with the Shins, gives me such deep pleasure it’s almost embarrassing, and the album ends with “The Fall of Rome,” which is solo Jollett at his most exposed, and which has already become a fan favorite on their current tour.
When I listen to Dope Machines, I instinctively split it in two: the first six songs, which are the catchiest (among them the shit-kicking alt-rock hit “Hell and Back,” the danceable “One Time Thing,” and “California”), and the last four, which feel like a suite to me. “My Childish Bride,” “The Thing About Dreams,” “Something You Lost,” and “Chains” are all Jollett Guy ballads, moody and dead serious, layered with deep cushions of synthesizers and airy echoed backing vocals. They’re all vividly mindful of the high stakes for men and women whose primary experience of the world is that they are solitary beings surrounded by an “endless expanse of space,” and who believe the only way to cross that expanse is to give oneself up to love. For such people, losing the love that you thought could save you is “like a taste of death”; love’s sorrows and disappointments feel impossible to carry, but the power of hope keeps them going. “The Thing About Dreams” builds to an emotional crescendo and then bursts to overflowing in “Something You Lost,” maybe the most honest and openhearted song Jollett has ever written. Composed in the same key and using the same chord structure as “Dreams,” “Something You Lost” brings the Jollett Guy to his ultimate crisis. Lying warmly in a bed with a lover who accepts him for who he is, and with whom he is building a new life, “sowing a garden” out of the “stuff of these bones / once broken and cold,” he nonetheless feels the urge to run, to keep the secret of his own fear — his “prison-house of shame” as he’s put it elsewhere — to himself. His greatest fear, he realizes, is that he will always do this — always run, and that the “rest of your life will be a series of nights / that you spend in your mind / Staring backwards through time / At something you lost.” I don’t want to get carried away, but this has a nearly Henry Jamesian pathos to it — his awareness that he’s missing out on life and love because of his own fear is painfully resonant. But then the song takes a most un-Jamesian turn, because the Jollett Guy picks himself off the “damp dirty floor of his wintry cold room,” goes back to his lover, tears open his heart, lets her see the man he is (fear and all), and begs her, “Please don’t ever leave. Please don’t ever go.” Grabbing “this one small home” and this “brief moment of time” away from the “endless expanse of space all around us,” he defies his own fear and accepts love. It’s an astonishing song.
When I was eight years old, my mother, who suffered terribly from mental illness, left my family and returned to her home country of Brazil, and I never saw her again. About that time, I started having dreams in which I was standing, all alone, on an endless and completely empty plane that was crisscrossed by lines at right angles, like a grid, and that went off in all directions forever. I’ve had the dream off and on all my life, particularly when a relationship is threatened or over, and it’s my touchstone when I think of what loneliness is. When Mikel Jollett sings about “the endless expanse of space / all around us. / Alone,” I think I know exactly what he means — I know that feeling’s texture, its shame and fear and solitude, and the urgency it calls forth to end it by pleading to someone, “Please don’t ever leave.”
I’ve been an Airborne “fan” since 2008, and I’ve written about them several times with a sort of avidity that’s rare for me. I talk them up to friends, have long conversations with my wife about them (she’s equally avid), and care about them in a way that surprises and sometimes confuses me. Now I know that rock criticism (any kind of criticism, really) is supposed to avoid the purely personal, but the best of it — I’m thinking here of Paul Nelson, Dave Marsh, and Lester Bangs — gets its insights and power from being personally, even shockingly, moved. Now that the new albums have come out, I know what’s moving me. Jollett gets aloneness, the solitude that has the taste of death, and he knows the surrounding emptiness that intensifies it. And he makes me realize that the black bird, among the 13 things it is, is also me.
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