Airborne Toxic Event frontman Mikel Jollett’s recent memoir Hollywood Park (named after the horse racing track that was torn down beginning in 2014) explores his youth growing up in the Synanon Commune society, escaping it, and the toll it and the other major events of his youth had on his life. While Jollett has gone on to a great many accomplishments, it’s clear rock n’ roll remains one of his top passions, leading him to create an album to accompany his memoir. [Note: as of writing this, I have not yet read the memoir, so all interpretations of the songs’ narratives are strictly from my interpretation of the lyrics]
On this sixth album, Jollett and his California-based rock band have reached towards cinematic heights and come out with a beautiful, emotionally-stirring opus. While stylistically the group remains close to its lightly moody, 80’s influenced arena-ready sound from previous albums, the personal subject matter has given the tracks here a more fervent energy than we’ve heard from them before.
The album’s opening title track bounds quickly out the gate, with zealous drumming mirroring the fervor felt as a horse race begins. Sung partly from the perspective of Jollett’s father (who had been in prison and recovering from heroin addiction), the inspirational and emotional journey starts with him trying to pick himself up from the bottom (“The $14 bucks I made on the bus ride from Chino I laid it on 3rd, he was due, and I was too…for a change”), with the park becoming like a surrogate home to young Jollett, with its demolishment representing the end of an era in his life (“We stand here as the world fell apart at Hollywood Park”). Like many of the tracks on the album, the song builds to a Springsteenian-sized arena ending.
The album’s first single, “Come on Out”, is a mid-tempo, beat-heavy sing along. Jollett’s low-register is reminiscent of the haunting baritone of David Gahan (best seen on the brooding “Everything I Love is Broken”), but on songs like this one, he allows his voice to be layered and accompanied by a gospel choir to reach exhilarating and cathartic peaks. He achieves this to even greater effect on the album highlight “All These Engagements”, which evolves from a dreamy pop song into a passionate rocker, with swooning melodies countering jagged chanting.
The pacing throughout here is handled well, with searing ballads like the touching “Brother, How Was the War” interspersed between the more epic tracks. “Brother” is again told through the point of view of Jollett’s father, writing to his brother from jail, addressing their mother’s fears and the answers they both seem to be searching for. As the lush strings come in, with Jollett singing “When were we ever young?”, it’s impossible not to visualize grand imagery of Vietnam and young people in the streets.
The themes of desiring change, acceptance and escape predominate the album. Two of the three can be heard in “I Don’t Want to Be Here Anymore”, as Jollett sings “No one is ever gonna believe us. Now you want to talk about Jesus” over distorted guitars. “The Common Touch”, while having fun with its sarcastic lyrics (“The common touch ain’t worth the price”) is a sincere love song at heart, with Jollett showing vulnerability as he admits to his own problems while still hoping the woman he loves will give him a chance. As the sweeping horns join the ending guitar solo, the results are positively inspiring.
The same can be said of the album on the whole, as Airborne Toxic Event turn Jollett’s traumatic past into a magnificent collection of songs, and the band’s greatest album to date. Take a listen to it below, and order the book from your local independent book store.