Way back near the beginning of this Album Assignments thing, I heard The Airborne Toxic Event for the first time. They were featured on a Paul McCartney tribute album, covering one of Sir Paul’s lower lights, “No More Lonely Nights.”

That this was my first exposure to the band probably fulfills some stereotype about parents in their 40s. If the shoe fits, I suppose. In any case, I was quite impressed with the cover — it took a pretty hokey McCartney song and infused it with a tenderness, a loveliness even. Combined with a strong recommendation from a friend whose wife happened to be schoolmates with the lead singer (Mikel Jollett), and another fine tribute album cover (of Dylan’s “Boots Of Spanish Leather”), I put them on my “dig deeper” list, and now here we are.

What becomes clear after listening to TATE’s 2008 debut album is that their softhearted covers aren’t much of an advertisement for their original music, which is fierce and angsty. The album kicks off with a terrific track called “Wishing Well”, which starts as a slow burn and drops into rock propulsion about 75 seconds in, at the lyric “you wanna run away”, throwing in a well-placed f-bomb just to let you know it means business. The song tells a story of somebody tossed by the winds of fate, tumbling off an emotional cliffside, screaming and crying but somehow hoping for the best.

Album cover for The Airborne Toxic Event

Wikipedia informs me that Jollett started writing songs when a confluence of horrible events hit — a breakup, mother diagnosed with cancer, and Jollett himself diagnosed with an an autoimmune disease. That certainly fits with the mood of “Wishing Well”, which has the mood of someone pushed to the extreme by events beyond his control.

Still, it seems like the breakup is the overriding source of anguish, or perhaps it’s just the one that’s easiest to write songs about. Almost every song on The Airborne Toxic Event has some connection with a broken relationship, from the trauma flashbacks of “Something New” to the epic mourning of “Innocence” to the self-explanatory devastation of “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”

Each of these songs does a marvelous job at conveying the shattered feelings that lie in the wake of love’s dissolution, and if they didn’t speak to me quite as much as they would have 25 years ago, chalk that up to being a parent in my 40s.

Youthful romantic crisis is the name of the game throughout most of this album, but one standout exception is “Gasoline.” The beat is no less fervent and the riff no less urgent than in any of the other songs, but this time the narrator is older, and the subject is nostalgia. This time he’s in a relationship, but reminiscing about the passion of his young love:

And she’ll step away
For a second or two
And I close my eyes
And I think of you

We were only seventeen
We were holding in our screams
Like we’d torn it from the pages
Of some lipstick magazine
And you scratch and turn
And say, “Let’s burn ourselves up ’til we scream”
Like gasoline

Jollett does an amazing job on this vocal, pitching his tone with near-hysteria on the memory choruses but tossing off the last line almost like an afterthought, caught immediately by staccato guitar and Noah Harmon’s bass. The whole thing is a fantastic gestalt — I think it’s my favorite song on the album. But that’s just because it’s an awesome song. Definitely nothing to do with being a parent in my 40s.

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