Album review: Hollywood Park

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The headstock of a teal and silver Fender guitar sits in front of a teal background. Pixabay

The Airborne Toxic Event delivers another genre-defying hit

by david sahlmueller, Contributor

 While I think it is safe to say nobody was sad to see 2020 go, fans of the indie music scene can at least look back fondly on the release of Hollywood Park in May. This sixth studio album by Los Angeles based alternative rock band The Airborne Toxic Event – the first to not feature violinist Anna Bulbrook – was inspired by the troubled past of frontman Mikel Jollet and the recent passing of his father. Named after the horse race track in LA that Jollet often visited with his brother and father as a child and young adult, the album provides a view into his difficult childhood, struggle with poverty, rise against adversity, and relationship with his father.

Despite The Airborne Toxic Event’s familiarity with writing songs about personal struggles, hardship and how bleak life can be, Hollywood Park takes this emotional quality to an all new and much more personal level. It will make you laugh at times, cry at others, and feel a deep sense of empathy, all while weaving a tale of Jollet’s history. 

The title track “Hollywood Park” serves as a fitting introduction to the record, establishing the setting at Hollywood Park as some of the happiest moments of Jollet’s childhood. “Brother, How Was the War?” is a heart-wrenchingly beautiful ballad from the perspective of Jollet’s father writing to his brother during the Vietnam War. Currently in prison, his knowledge of what is going on in the outside world, not to mention the battlefields of Vietnam, is quite limited, but his concern for his brother is evident: “But your 4F brother just hopes you make it back alive.”

Following this theme of serious subject matter are songs such as “Come on Out,” which tells the story of a young Jollet facing abuse from his stepfather, and “All the Children,” which sheds some light on the cult called Synanon into which Jollet and his brother were born. Similarly, “I Don’t Want to Be Here Anymore” is based on Jollet’s confusion regarding his time spent in this cult and his eventual escape with his brother and mother.

Another common theme of this album is the close but complicated relationship between Jollet and his father, who struggled with drug addiction and spent some time in prison. Their relationship is discussed in the songs “Everything I Love is Broken” and “The Common Touch,” the latter of which describes Jollet’s reaction upon hearing the news of his father’s passing: “I lost my shit when I heard the call / Felt buried beneath the weight and all / Twenty five tons fell on my chest / Every hour, every breath.” Arguably the most emotional track on this album, it addresses Jollet’s regret that he didn’t have more time to spend with his father.

Following these feelings of regret, inadequacy, confinement, and the desire to escape are the songs “Carry Me,” and “All These Engagements.” The former is a sort of plea by a young Jollet to escape his current situation and create a better life for himself: “These straps across my chest make it hard to breathe.” It really hits home for anyone who has ever felt trapped and determined to find something better, but not sure how to get there: “I don’t know what I’m trying to run from/ All I know is I need to be someone.”

Similarly, “All These Engagements” is a reflection on love and inadequacy; the desire to find love and be loved, but at the same time feeling undeserving of such love. For much of Jollet’s troubled youth, love was an unfamiliar concept to him. Upon getting to know his actual father after years of living in an orphanage within Synanon and then in poverty with his mother, he finally began to understand what it felt like to have someone take care of him. The loss of his father was a huge blow to Jollet, but as he points out in “All These Engagements,” “They say it’s so much better to have loved and lost / Than to have lived in a bubble, never knowing the cost.”

Rounding out the album are “The Place We Meet a Thousand Feet Beneath the Racetrack,” a beautiful melodic outro, and “True,” an uplifting song about life, death and friendship. The latter depicts life as a series of highs and lows, emphasizes that time is limited, and talks of being reunited with loved ones; “It’s true you were my best friend / We needed each other in the end / When there’s nothing left to give / There’s just some time that you can spend.”

My verdict, if you haven’t already figured it out yet, is that this album is very good. One of the great things about The Airborne Toxic Event is that it never conforms to one particular style of music; it bridges genres and has defined its own niche within indie music. The band has a unique sound which has evolved from album to album while staying true to its alternative rock roots and genuine down-to-earth approach to writing meaningful lyrics.

This latest album is less electric guitar driven than some of its earlier music, and features less violin due to the departure of Anna Bulbrook. Yet Hollywood Park is a masterpiece in its own right, boasting a sound reminiscent of bands such as The Tragically Hip and U2. Beyond just presenting great music, this album tells the remarkable and inspiring story of how Mikel Jollet overcame significant adversity to get to where he is today.

If this album wasn’t enough, it is accompanied by Jollet’s memoir, also entitled Hollywood Park, which provides context to the tracks on the album. As the first new release from The Airborne Toxic Event since 2015, Hollywood Park hits very close to home for Mikel Jollet and serves as a testament to listeners that we can make something great of our lives, regardless of the shit we have been through in our past. Although Jollet says “everyone knows that the common touch ain’t worth the price,” I can guarantee that this superb album sure as hell is.

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