Through five records from The Airborne Toxic Event, there are themes that have clearly captivated Mikel Jollett: threads of thought that stalk his work like spirits, weaving their way through the shadows of multiple albums.
Death is the most obvious one of course, its influence limited not just to the songs but extending to the band’s very name and identity. But there are others.
Love. Loss. Home. Angels. Ghosts. Rain.
Amongst these weighty subjects, there is one that sticks out like something of a sore thumb.
Mikel Jollett is kind of obsessed with being a man.
The admonition to “be a man” conjures primitive images of testosterone-dripping, chest-thumping, macho Neanderthals who know what they want and aren’t afraid to take it, even if it means stepping on others along the way.
But unlike certain Presidential candidates, Jollett doesn’t seem overly concerned with flashing his masculine credentials and measuring his… fingers. Rather, his work betrays that he’s still grasping for direction, wrestling with what exactly constitutes manhood in the context of fear, change, uncertainty and relationships.
“What does it mean to be a man?” asks Jollett from the stage one night in Boston. “That’s a really stupid idea, right? I don’t know, like, eating beef jerky? You know, you can think of all these cheesy, simplified things that you can attach to that idea, which is ridiculous. So, for me, I landed on honesty. There was a time when I felt really trapped by so much that I was trying to hide from the rest of the world, and ultimately I realized that I just had to burn the whole fucking thing down.”
The embracing of authenticity and vulnerability is a very 21st century approach to masculinity; one that deals more in questions than answers, as we’ll see as we trace Jollett’s lyrical journey through manhood.
In “Changing,” Jollett treads a fine line between deference on the one side and cocksurety on the other. “I am a gentleman,” he insists repeatedly, offering a litany of proof. He requests what he needs, rather than demanding it: “Didn’t I ask for a place I could stay?” He pays his own way: “Didn’t I pay for every laugh, every dime, every bit every time?” He prioritizes relationship and steps up when he is needed: “Didn’t I answer every time that you call? Pick you up when you fall?”
That said, there’s a firm limit to his flexibility, and he butts up against it when he finds that being a gentleman is getting him nowhere. A deep mistrust is eating at the relationship – at least on her side – and he’s not going to take it lying down. “You say that I lie,” he says with disbelief. “You say I never tried.” Are you serious?
As her deep-seated suspicion seeds mind games and naked attempts at control, the gentleman takes a backseat to a more primal form of masculinity: one that’s had enough of listening, resists compromise and takes a stand. “I won’t hear one more word about changing. Guess what, I am the same man.”
The stubborn man, unwilling to bend and refusing to be owned, is a stark contrast to the gentleman who minded his manners and followed the rules. So what type of man does he want to be?
In “The Storm,” an almost 40-year-old Jollett is starting to figure it out. He’s come to a sobering awareness: only just now, after “25 years of running in sand,” has he finally “learned how to stand like a man.”
As it turns out, standing like a man isn’t at all what he expected; perhaps that’s why the lesson was so long in the learning.
“I was going through a lot of heavy stuff at this point in my life when I wrote this song,” Jollett explains. “The idea of the song is somebody witnessing your struggles. You go through these private struggles in your life, and in some cases you feel like you’ve been just barely getting through for a very long time. And the idea is that somebody comes in and just sees it, and is like, ‘Oh my God!’ And that moment of sympathy and empathy, and that sense that somebody can witness who you are and want to help you in your life when you’re just kind of laid bare was really powerful for me at the time. There’s a sense of home that’s kind of the heart of love; that sense of homeness that you can just be yourself with someone, they can see your struggles, and they can see what’s good and bad about you and love you for it. And the minute you recognize that is actually when you know that you have love in your life.”
It’s an extraordinarily counter-cultural take on manliness. We think it’s all about standing on our own two feet and handling shit on our own. But Jollett found manhood in a moment of extreme weakness, even dependence, when he realized there was someone else in the room and it was okay to lean on them. Being a man is not a solo sport.
The Fifth Day
By “The Fifth Day,” the man is broken. The room is empty again.
If Jollett found relationship to be the key to manhood, what does it mean to be a man now that the girl who continually reminded him, “Boy, you’re not so tough,” is gone?
Well, perhaps she’s not completely gone after all. Memories linger: their song in the air, her scent on the sheets. And he knows, even in her absence, “It’s these things that make you a man.”
He may be facing the future alone, but he’s not the same man he was – and he’s not going back. Even if he wanted to, he can’t remember where he started.
But I won’t go back to what I was
I know now that you are lost
It’s your choices that make you a man
Your frozen mind begins to thaw
You think my God my God my God
Where was it I began?
There’s only one way out, and that’s forward, with the lessons of the past in his pocket. That is his choice.
The Way Home
The Such Hot Blood bonus track “The Way Home” introduces us to a man at the end of his rope. Perhaps it’s the same man from “The Fifth Day,” some indeterminate time later; it’s tough to say. The events that have crushed him are not spelled out, but whatever they were, they have left him alone and uncertain.
But also full of resolve.
Rather than yielding to despair and wallowing “beneath this darkened shroud,” the narrator gets his head about him. Change is no longer the enemy. He tears down his prison of shame, brick by ignominious brick. He catches a glimpse of hope – “I can hear the birds, see the light outside” – and it emboldens him to “stand up like a man and swallow my pride.” The hands of time may have beaten him down, but they haven’t defeated him.
The doubts have not been vanquished; not all the question marks have been replaced by periods. He is neither brave nor sure – but Fear will not be permitted the final word.
He doesn’t have the slightest clue where he’s going, just that it’s far away from here – and that’s enough for now. The man closes the door behind him and sets off for the horizon, walking this road on the bricks he’s laid.
Time to be a Man
If the story ended there, you might think he’d finally figured it out. But there’s another chapter, and it brings Jollett full circle.
“Time to be a Man” is a funny song. It seems on the surface to be a bit of an odd duck in the Jollett catalog, with a triumphalist tone that contrasts sharply with his customary cynicism. “Be a man! The whole world is at your door!” What was that we said about chest thumping?
Except it’s not that at all. The man who had boldly set out for a new life somehow finds himself right back where he began: tossing his way through sleepless nights. And still alone. The lessons of “The Storm” have long since been forgotten: he thought he could do it on his own, “like you don’t need no one else,” but he was wrong. “The way home is so steep” – much steeper than he expected.
Yet again, he tries to muster up the strength to be a man. However, his admonition to himself is shot through with self-doubt. “Tell me how does that go? What the hell are you waiting for?”
“The whole world is at your door,” he reminds himself. But walking through that door is not as easy as it seems.
“Time to be a Man” isn’t the optimistic paean to grabbing life by the balls that it might at first glance appear to be. It’s the same secrets and lies and doubts and failures that Jollett has always battled, just wrapped up in a glossier package.
In other words, he hasn’t figured it out after all. Not by a long shot.
But he’s not pretending he has… and that’s a start.
Glen 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.