“We’re kind of genre-less. I think we play lots of styles of music… We’re musicians in the purest sense in that we’re not stuck to a genre. We just like music. If we liked polka, we’d probably play polka.”
– Mikel Jollett
For almost a year now, Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event has been hinting at/warning of/ardently proclaiming a radical change in direction for the band’s fourth studio album, Dope Machines. He has been at once aware that some fans may not like it (“If people aren’t mad about this next record, I’ll feel like I failed”), chagrined that anyone would object to an artist breaking new artistic ground (“I find it really weird that people can’t wrap their head around the fact that as a musician you would want to make more than one type of music”), unapologetically defiant (“People keep asking us, are you a rock band, a folk band, an electronic band? The answer is, fuck off!”) and, above all, certain of his course (“This isn’t what The Airborne Toxic Event is supposed to be; this is who we are”).
On one occasion Jollett famously declared, “I kind of want to destroy the sound of the band. That’s kind of my goal on this next record, is just completely explode any expectations we or anyone else has about what we sound like;” on several others he likened the magnitude of the shift from Such Hot Blood to Dope Machines to the transformation that Radiohead undertook between The Bends and OK Computer.
And make no mistake: the musical makeover of TATE is significant. But just as noteworthy as the sounds emanating from the speakers is the means by which they came to be.
Even more than the style, some longtime Airborne listeners were concerned over early indications that the fourth album would be made with less direct involvement on the part of the other band members than previous TATE recordings. Take, for example, this comment from Jollett’s interview with Darren Rose last spring: “There’s not going to be a ton of drumming on the next record. I mean, Daren’s gonna definitely play a bunch of stuff, but we’re gonna sort of mix it together with stuff that’s programmed.”
The genesis of Dope Machines involved Jollett holing himself up in a room and writing a ton of music. Of course, that was true of the first three albums as well. But this time, rather than taking his solo work as a starting point and building upon that foundation with his bandmates, Jollett instead emerged from his cocoon with what he felt at the time was a near-finished product, and confidence that he had achieved what he had set out to do. As he said in the interview referenced above:
“When I sit down to write something, in a few days I can get really close to what a finished product is gonna sound like. And doing that has forced me to make a lot more choices that I used to leave up to chance… I’m producing the next record, completely; I’m not even bringing in another producer at all, and it’s forced me to make choices that I wouldn’t normally have had to make. It’s also massively meticulous, every single effect, every single thing, trying to get it right. But then what’s good about that is I really have to own it; I really have to think through what I want this thing to sound like.
“That’s how I’m doing this record. It’s really close to done. And I don’t want to reproduce it in some expensive, fancy studio in Nashville… I want it to sound like how I want it to sound, ’cause whatever decision I made at 3 am after ten hours of wrestling with how a kick drum should sound at this part of a song, or how much reverb the vocals should have or what the compression rate should be on the fuckin’ keyboard or whatever it is, I trust that decision. I don’t want to redo it later, and I don’t want someone else to redo it.”
That Jollett stuck to his guns to a great extent is evident not only in the sound of the album (particularly the first half, where traditional guitars, violas and drums are shelved in favor of electronic synths, layered Jollett vocals and programmed drum machines) but also in the credits, which, unusually for TATE, name a number of guest contributors. Included in the list of helping hands are John K. Morrical, Jr., Math Bishop and Miguel Devivo, who all added keyboards to a number of tracks, as well as guest background vocalists Kenny Soto (“One Time Thing,” “Dope Machines” and “Time to be a Man”), Arnae Batson (“Dope Machines”) and Audra Mae (“California”).
Having said that, nine months have passed since Jollett’s initial revelations: three quarters of a year that included the official addition of a new band member, signing to a new label (Epic Records) and road testing the new material. To what extent these developments impacted the finished product, only those in the inner circle know, but the betting here is that Dope Machines evolved a great deal between then and now.
And now that it has in fact landed, what to make of the long-awaited, much-debated release?
As expected, the willingness of any given listener to leave their preconceived notions of how TATE is “supposed” to sound at the door may very well inform their response to the finished product. Though it’s true that, as Jollett has said, “our core fans that are really familiar with the breadth of things that we’ve done won’t be terribly surprised,” it’s also entirely likely that much of what initially drew any given fan to the band will be difficult to recognize on this release, if it’s there at all.
If some find themselves unable to get past what isn’t found on Dope Machines, it is both understandable and regrettable.
Understandable, because TATE BDM (Before Dope Machines) remains undeniably special. A violin in a rock song, lyrics that were obviously penned by a novelist and not a songsmith, and, yes, a supremely talented original bassist – all these elements and more have contributed to something that is truly unique in the 21st Century musical landscape, and no one wants to lose it.
Regrettable, though, because those who allow themselves to look beyond the past will find in Dope Machines the thrill of new discovery, a familiar voice speaking in fresh tones, a band that is resolute in its collective refusal to be hemmed in by anyone’s expectations, and a vastly broadened musical landscape that leaves the future wide open. If The Airborne Toxic Event was difficult to pigeonhole before, they are impossible now; where they go from here is anyone’s guess.
“We are not a franchise,” insists Jollett. “We’re artists. We’re just a group of musicians playing music. Sometimes that music is on acoustic guitars and sometimes it is on a bunch of crazy keyboards. Being an artist – you make stuff that makes the hair on your neck stand up. Sometimes that means a whispering folk song and sometimes that means a bunch of loud dance instruments.”
This time out, it means the latter. From bouncy lead single “Wrong,” to the funky earworm that is “One Time Thing,” to the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink aural adventure of a title track and on through the dreamy soundscape of the second half of the album, the language of choice is electronica.
But that doesn’t mean that The Airborne Toxic Event will never whisper again. Look no further than the bombshell the band dropped yesterday: a second, surprise album to be released concurrently with Dope Machines, an acoustic rock ‘n’ roll record called Songs of God and Whiskey. Featuring the already-beloved “The Fall of Rome,” which is as raw and poignant as anything in the TATE catalog, this unexpected gift should lay to rest any concerns that the Airborne of old, whatever that means, has been put to rest. (Note: we’ll have a full review of Songs of God and Whiskey on Tuesday.)
Even apart from this welcome news, the closing track of Dope Machines, “Chains,” serves as reassurance that everything we have come to love about the band remains alive and well amongst the new dimensions that have been added to their sound. After nine songs devoid of most classic TATE fundamentals, the grand finale rings in with the familiar chime of Steven Chen’s guitar, channeling the Edge in all his reverb glory. Daren Taylor’s drums thump loud and pure. And then, with barely two minutes to go, Anna Bulbrook’s breathless viola finally shows its face, almost as if to say with a wink, “You didn’t think we’d forgotten about her, did you?” And so this chapter comes to an end with an exquisite blend of old and new.
I can no more rank my favorite Airborne album than I can choose among my four children. To try would be a fool’s errand at the best of times, much less mere hours after adding a shiny new toy to the collection. But I will say this much: Dope Machines is the catchiest release of the band’s career to date, and it is certainly their boldest and in many ways most compelling step since their debut album. It can stand proudly alongside its predecessors, and may just provide a doorway for new listeners to discover their delights.
It may be different, but The Airborne Toxic Event has done it again.
Dope Machines: Track by Track
Wrong: The lead track and first single was a guitar-infused live favorite weeks before the polished, electro-pop studio version raised eyebrows across TATE nation. What the recording sacrifices in visceral punch, it makes up for in sheer danceability, setting the stage for an album full of surprises.
One Time Thing: After three weeks with this song on near-constant repeat and not even close to wearing out its welcome, I’m about ready to declare “One Time Thing” the most addictive TATE song of all time. Mikel Jollett insists that he did not set out to write radio hits, but he might very well have succeeded in doing so nevertheless. Propelled by a distorted, staccato bassline, this tale of misplaced romantic longing really catches fire in the second half.
Dope Machines: The title track is the shortest on the album, but it packs a ton of noise into its 3:17. Seemingly a half beat slower than the live version to which we’ve become accustomed, “Dope Machines” is a wicked combination of screechy guitar and shrill synths that rocks harder than any TATE release since “Welcome to Your Wedding Day.” There are so many competing elements going on at once that it seems like it shouldn’t work – and yet it does.
California: If “Dope Machines” seems slightly slower on the album than it does live, “California” seems sped up. On tour, the ode to the real face of the band’s home state is played straight down the middle as a crowd-pleasing, brisk ballad that would’ve been right at home on Such Hot Blood. The studio recording has more pep in its step, with electronic embellishments giving it a slicker feel. Notably, “California” marks the first time Jollett has shared songwriting credits with someone outside of the band (Linda Perry).
Time to Be a Man: “Time to Be a Man” is an odd amalgamation, marrying some of the most experimental moments on the album to an uncharacteristically conventional chorus that conjures images of a sea of cell phones (or lighters, given the nostalgic feel) waving in unison in a darkened arena. After opening with 20 seconds of bleeps and bloops that give off a sort of carnival-meets-eighties-video-game vibe, the song settles into a mainstream radio mode that sits a little uncomfortably on TATE. On the plus side, the song gives Bulbrook a chance to shine brightly with a dramatic vocal interlude.
Hell and Back: Originally released in the fall of 2013 as part of the Dallas Buyers Club soundtrack, the unexpected hit song established the blueprint for Dope Machines. At the time it seemed like a major departure, with its synth underbelly and electronic drumbeats. But after a year and a half as a rowdy live staple and presented within the context of an album that pushes the envelope much further, it actually comes across now as something of a throwback to old-time TATE – particularly the Changing-esque stomp of a chorus.
My Childish Bride: The tone of the album shifts dramatically from the opening drone of “My Childish Bride,” the first in a trilogy of downbeat, introspective numbers with subtle instrumentation (electronic and otherwise). “Bride” is set against a crisp background of what sounds like hand claps, which interestingly fits with Jollett’s original (and ultimately abandoned) vision for Airborne’s previous album, Such Hot Blood. Steven Chen is credited as a co-writer, and the writers’ lyrical proficiency steps to the forefront with clever, clipped phrasing.
The Thing About Dreams: Were you to drop straight into the chorus of this moody ballad, you would never guess it to be an Airborne song, however familiar with the band you may be. Delivered in an appropriately dreamy falsetto that reaches higher notes than one would expect a baritone like Jollett to hit, the refrain is bookended by plodding yet purposeful verses backed by sweeping, ethereal vocals reminiscent of the Bulbrook-fronted “Come Unwound” by The Bulls. The thing about “The Thing About Dreams” is that it ushers the listener into yet another heretofore unexplored dimension of the band.
Something You Lost: Jollett has identified “Something You Lost” as his favorite track on the album, and it’s not difficult to see why. Completing the trifecta of atmospheric reflections, the song is in no hurry to get where it’s going – each line delivered with intentional precision and increasing passion, as Jollett pleads with his lover to stay by his side. “Something You Lost” immediately takes its place among The Airborne Toxic Event’s most affecting pieces.
Chains: TATE 2.0 meets TATE 1.0. From Column A: Jollett’s vocals doubled or even tripled up over top of subtle synth undertones. From Column B: propulsive guitar riffs, live drums and a show-stopping (if brief) viola solo. In typical TATE fashion, the composition gradually ramps up in urgency before bursting into full-fledged anthem mode, transporting the listener to “a place with no center and no edge and no end.”
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.