A band that gets its name from a catalyzing section of Don DeLillo’s postmodern masterpiece White Noise is going to be saddled with intellectual expectations. In the case of The Airborne Toxic Event, the band doesn’t simply seem aware of this, but it’s as though they’re inviting literary analysis. Which shouldn’t be a surprise for an album scribed by a novelist and published author (Mikeel Jollett) who uses music as a way to tell a story as much as he uses it as a way to move a crowd.
The band’s second album, All at Once, begins with the title track, and it works as a statement of the risk they’re about to take, being everything at the same time: heart-wrenching and fast-dancing, tight and loose, free and focused, anthemic and intimate. It’s a challenge most bands would fall short of, but one Jollett and company surmount with relative ease. I’m a firm believer that it’s impossible to dislike a book if it has a good first chapter and a good last chapter, and All at Once has both. Its track one prologue picks up quickly from simple marching drums to build a symphonic swell of lyrics wracked with emotion and backed by the distant wail of guitars. Its final song, “The Graveyard Near the House,” is slow and gentle and wonderfully self-aware, asking the listener throughout, “You have no idea about me, do you?” It’s a writer’s rock album, born of one of the reason many write, to leave a piece of ourselves behind, and it’s a concern that’s central to the album. The lyrics explode with angst, music fills the scenes with detail, and the answers all raise questions.
All at Once matches a stadium sound with a Barfly soul. I say Barfly because it’s more Bukowski than it is DeLillo, which is like saying it’s more a free-flowing rock record than a commentary on rock records that works as an exploration of 21st century themes related to the creation of rock records. And that’s good. Not because they couldn’t pull it off, but it would be a much harder review to write, one that would require looking up all kinds of SAT words and finding all kinds of intellectual arguments to pass off as my own when I’d rather just say it’s a pretty kick-ass record with some pretty poetic storytelling, and one that’s easy to enjoy pretty much the whole way through.