Last year I had the opportunity to sit down and do an interview with The Airborne Toxic Event, and it was one that I will never forget. I was/am a big fan of their 2008 self-titled debut, and I was totally jazzed for our little meeting. I was criminally under-prepared, and it turned out to be an embarassment in my mind. Truly, the interview went ok, I just sounded and felt like an asshole who had no idea what he was talking about. Mikel Jollett is smarter than me. I get that now.
With my head hung in shame, we went to the show that night, at Park West , where ATE was playing with the Calder Quartet. The show was blistering at times, quiet and sad at others, much like their record. There was a point in the show when they played a couple songs that were going to appear on their new album, All At Once. After they played “All For a Woman” they did either “Changing” or the title track, I can’t remember. Once those songs were over, I leaned over to my wife and told her that it sounded like the new record was going to have some heavy Springsteen influences. I don’t know if they heard me, but just before they broke for intermission, the band played this medley, which only furthered my suspicions:
And wouldn’t you know it, Bruce is all over on this release. Mikel isn’t emulating The Boss so much as paying tribute to him, and I’m all good with that. There are a lot of songs on All At Once that have musical references to classic rock jams, like on “Changing” I hear some J. Geils Band. There are even cues to The Killers and about twenty other current and older bands.
That’s one thing I give ATE credit for, they aren’t afraid to show their influences. It’s something that most bands are scared of because they don’t want to sound like a rip-off of someone else, but when you do it well, like this band does, it just adds to the depth of the songs.
One of the biggest triumphs on their debut was the songwriting of lead singer Jollett, and it’s still strong on this record. My favorite song in these early stages of my enjoyment of this record is “Doesn’t Mean A Thing.” It’s a bit of a throwback to old storytelling country songs, with a punk rock attitude laid on top. My favorite lyrics are as follows:
Now my dad says “Fuck the details,”
You just keep your head down, hide
You gotta find yourself alone before you’ll find the eyes of God
You may be broken scared and mad as hell
At the flesh on your heartstrings
You were born to be a peasant not a king
So just stop acting like you’re running from something
You gotta leave the way you came without a thing
With your heart tied to your mind tied to a string
And they’d just sing, and they’d sing, and they’d sing
“It doesn’t mean a thing”
That song leads into my second favorite track on the record, “The Kids Are Ready To Die.” This one is the song that most reminds me of early 80’s Springsteen. Something about the sound of Mikel’s voice, the chords, and the deliberate pacing of the song make me think of all those great songs off of Nebraska and Born In The U.S.A.
The rest of the album does a good job of keeping the listener guessing. There’s no direct musical correlation between any two songs in a row generally, but as a whole, the album does tell one story. I think the story it tells can be interpreted a couple of different ways. I take it as the tale of a man struggling with getting older. He’s been told to live one way, but doesn’t feel that the path laid before him is necessarily the best one.
ATE also does a good job of not repeating themselves. The album definitely has the same vibe as their debut, but these songs feel fresh and they’re invigorated with passion from the band.
If you are a fan of The Airborne Toxic Event’s first album, I have no doubt that you will love this record. If you did not enjoy the debut, I don’t think there is a lot here to persuade you otherwise, though I would urge you to give it a shot. Few bands are capable of making an album as smart and sonically developed as ATE, and I applaud them for their work.
If you’re interested in hearing me sound like a jackhole, here is the interview I did with the band last year: