TATE’s Best Album: The Case for The Airborne Toxic Event

Posted: September 2, 2014 in A Little Less Profound
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The Airborne Toxic EventBy Glen

Ed. Note: Just 16 days from now, The Airborne Toxic Event will take to the stage of The Fillmore in San Francisco, CA, to play their self-titled debut album from front to back. They’ll do the same the following two nights with their next two albums, All At Once and Such Hot Blood. As part of our countdown to this momentous occasion, each of This Is Nowhere’s writing staff will share why one of these albums is their favorite TATE record. Today, Glen makes the case for the debut; on Sept. 9, Jamie will delve into the sophomore album; and on Sept. 16 Julie will tackle the band’s most recent release.

One need only flip to the second page of the CD booklet of The Airborne Toxic Event’s eponymous 2009 release to confirm that you’ve got something special in your hands.

At a glance, the lyrics to “Wishing Well” look more like the first chapter of a novel than the opening song of a rock ‘n’ roll album. Which is fitting because, in a way, that’s exactly what they are.

As per TATE’s founding mythology, Mikel Jollett started out writing a book, and ended up writing an album. The truth of the legend is plainly evident in the utter lack of concern the writer exhibits for anything resembling traditional song structure throughout the ten-song collection. The music of The Airborne Toxic Event has been described as story set to music and poetry you can dance to, and it is in this first album that this well-deserved reputation was forged.

In the years between then and now, Mikel has grown immeasurably in his craft as a songwriter. He has become ever more adept at spinning his tales concisely; more proficient at weaving his yarns around the choruses and hooks that large audiences seem to require. This is undeniably a positive development.

AND YET…

The imperfect perfection of this naive and lovely first effort is equally undeniable. Here, a thousand words are worth far more than a picture. Here, a beating heart carved from a writer’s chest and placed on a shelf for all to gawk at captivates more powerfully than a mere chorus ever could. Here, we are drawn into a world we may never have lived in, and may never choose to inhabit, but which inexplicably feels like home nonetheless.

I could talk about the songs: how the mournful wail of the viola that opens “Sometime Around Midnight” never fails to send a chill ripping straight down my spine; how screaming out the final desperate lines to “Missy” in noisy, rowdy unison with 1,000 other voices in a crowd, all of them failing after two hours of singing along to every verse, provides unmatched catharsis; how “Innocence” moves my soul more deeply with its instrumentation alone than virtually any other song can do with words.

Or I could talk about the vocabulary: how words like mescaline and coquette and accoutrements and courtesan just don’t belong in rock songs, until you hear them here and realize that of course they do.

Or I could talk about the live shows, and how recent setlists suggest that the band members themselves seem to privilege their earlier work, whether because of their own personal preference for it or a nagging suspicion (right or wrong) that this is what the audience will respond to most enthusiastically.

But it all comes back to story. The stories told here are not my stories, but they have become mine. No, not mine – ours. Mikel’s stories have become the band’s stories have become the fans’ stories, and that’s what we’ll all gather together to celebrate those three sacred nights at The Fillmore.

If you ask me tomorrow to name my favorite album by The Airborne Toxic Event, I might give you a different answer. I might tell you that “The Graveyard Near the House” has the most profound lyrics I have ever heard put to music, and therefore I must choose All At Once. I might try to explain how the musical expedition that is “Safe,” with its peaks and its valleys and its whispers and its screams and its back and forth between Mikel and Anna and viola and guitar and Everything, leaves me exhilarated every time, compelling me to pick Such Hot Blood.

But without this tortured maiden voyage into the wounded depths of the writer’s psyche, there is no All At Once or Such Hot Blood. It is here that the stories are first told; here that the world which would later be fleshed out in bright and shiny color is first sketched in pencil.

Not everyone sees what we see in this picture. Some just cannot overlook the rough edges and the lack of polish and that damn, bloody bird. To them, it all just looks like such a mess.

But what a beautiful mess it is.

Glen, Fan of The Airborne Toxic EventGlen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.

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  1. […] TATE’s Best Album: The Case for The Airborne Toxic Event […]

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  2. […] This Is Nowhere’s writing staff has shared why one of these albums is their favorite TATE record. Two weeks ago, Glen made the case for the debut; last week, Jamie delved into the sophomore album; and today Julie tackles the band’s most recent […]

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