Ed. Note: This is the final entry in a six part series in which fans of The Airborne Toxic Event select their Top 5 musical moments of their favorite band member. Previous entries: Mikel Jollett’s Top 5 Vocals; Daren Taylor, the Ultimate Beat Keeper; Anna Bulbrook, Classically Trained Punk Rock Chick; Noah Harmon, Classical Rock God; Steven Chen, The Intellectual Rocker.
“So you write a string of words down. It’s better if there’s some truth in it.” – “Elizabeth,” Such Hot Blood
When I was first approached with the formidable task of choosing my Top 5 Lyrics for this article, I thought I had it all figured out. This was my chance to play the part of the intellectual lyrical know-it-all. After all, I could probably recite these lyrics backwards. I’m usually the girl in the front row singing them back to Mikel Jollett himself, mentally correcting him if and when he screws them up. And I have given these lyrics a lot of thought – turning them over and examining them from every angle, searching their origins for the truth about the writer behind them and the intended meaning he wanted to convey.
In the past, I have been known to give myself over to emotion over this band, gushing about the songs and lyrics and its personal meaning to me (see Behind the Madness: The Airborne Toxic Event, a regular feature on this blog). This time, I was going to take the intellectual route and put all emotion aside. After all, I know the ins and outs of this band and I listen to a lot of music with discrimination and purpose.
In the past, there have been whole debates on social media over whether picking a favorite TATE lyric is even possible. Like the brilliant writer he is, Mikel Jollett’s lyrics stand out incandescently against the beautiful, passionate music that is sure to make The Airborne Toxic Event timeless in the history of music itself.
Without further ado, and after much deliberation, I give you (a few of) my all-time personal favorites:
5. “We traded blindness for wisdom and some lines around our eyes.” – “Strange Girl,” All At Once
Is this a lyric or a line from a book? Like most TATE songs, the lines build on each other in order to tell a story, and here we have an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle. The reflection on transition from the past to the present is never so well illustrated. The way we view ourselves and the past is often distorted by ignorance and nostalgia, as he aptly describes in the last line of the song – “But time has made it all obscene, and trapped us in our dreams.”
4. “Arm your fears like soldiers and slay them.” – “All I Ever Wanted,” All At Once
The entire song is full of gems, but this potent line stands out glowing and powerful against the rest. It takes on a new meaning when one reads “The Hitchhiking Game” by Milan Kundera, the short story on which this song was allegedly based. The psychological elements of this song could be studied at length. However, here in this single line we have something on which to interpret ourselves. I carry this line around with me like a weapon in the facing of my own fears.
3. “Besides, what would I sing about if I had you?” – “Duet,” All I Ever Wanted: Live at Disney Hall
This line is designed to bring the listener to his or her knees. Its almost-whispered internal admission in the midst of a conversation between two past lovers calls to mind the other songs of heartbreak, and – whether intentionally or not – serves to tie them all together in one brilliant, tender moment. But lest we get carried away with emotion, he reminds us at the end: “I miss you . . . but it might just be the song.”
2. “So you write a string of words down. It’s better if there’s some truth in it.” – “Elizabeth,” Such Hot Blood
These lines are quickly and easily overshadowed by the next breathtaking line – “It’s true I love you, Elizabeth.” But it’s his admission about truth that took me by surprise.
In fact, it’s this line that changed my entire approach to this article as some kind of lyrical scholar or some inflated TATE know-it-all.
I was reminded that the entire foundation of the band was built on emotion, and without it, even the most beautiful music could easily be accused of being “just noise.” To remove the emotion was akin to replacing the hot-blooded, passionate writer I normally am with a calloused critic bent on objectivity, reducing a band with their own self-proclaimed Such Hot Blood to a textbook breakdown of cold, passionless noise. But that’s not what they are.
And that’s not what I am, either.
1. All of “The Graveyard Near the House,” but Especially the End – All At Once
“And I’ll defy every one and love you still. I will carry you with me up every hill. And if you die before I die, I’ll carve your name out of the sky. I’ll fall asleep with your memory and dream of where you lie. It may be better to move on and let life just carry on, and I may be wrong. Still, I’ll try. Because it’s better to love whether you win or lose or die.”
It is this song that blows my objective approach to bits.
It is this song that tears down my walls and leaves me shaking and exposed.
All of my fears laid out end to end – from the reality of holding my son as he died in my arms to the reality that all of our love stories may end in death – are so beautifully arranged in these lyrics that I can’t help but find myself between the lines of this tragic song. And it’s not as if I even want to, the way some girls wish they were “Elizabeth.” I don’t like where the lyrics of this song take me, down into the depths of the grave with its “corpses lying side by side in pieces,” “decomposed, half turned to dust in tattered clothes.” Like many of you, I run from these sad truths.
In fact, so many of these songs could be accused of being “sad.” With the melancholy strings, the themes of loss and death breathing in and out between the lines, and the hopelessness of unrequited love, The Airborne Toxic Event paints a picture as bleak as a barren tree. But while Mikel Jollett’s brilliant lyrics are as realistic as they are passionate, it’s the truth behind them that leads us out of the dark. Yes, sometimes the truth is hard. But no matter how much we try to run from them, it’s these emotional truths that connect us all, whether it’s the madness of seeing the ex-girlfriend “in that white dress,” the hope we are “just a wish that could turn out well,” or facing the fear of death with the antidote that “it’s better to love whether we win or lose or die.”
In the end, I am nothing special. My credentials for picking these lyrics are as valid as yours. These lyrics are the ones that move me the most. This is just my best guess.
But no matter who we are, or what our background is, we find ourselves in the universal themes contained in these lyrics, this “string of words” written down for our interpretation.
And ultimately, we are left with this profound realization: it’s better if there’s some truth in it, after all.
Purchase the Best of Mikel’s Lyrics:
When she’s not front row at a TATE show with a bird emblazoned on her face, Colleen can be found blogging regularly at These Stunning Ruins. She and her husband have also been known to occasionally lay down a wicked Airborne cover.