If the music of Andrew McMahon is autobiographical, his ever-shifting stage monikers reflect an ongoing journey towards self-awareness and identity.
From a solo debut EP in 1997 under his given name to a quick shift to Something Corporate in 1998, then adopting Jack’s Mannequin in 2005, the music of McMahon plays like a sonic scrapbook to a life story made for film: young artist breaks out in pop-punk scene; young adult slips into mature, pop-rock groove as he copes with heartbreak, love renewed and mortality. With a keen mind for crafting catchy choruses and poignant ballads that resonate with a fanbase growing older alongside him, McMahon is a force to be reckoned with seated at (or standing on) a piano.
On his latest release, he’s come back to his own name — sort of. The debut album of Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness is a testament not only to a stripping to his core self as a husband, musician and new father; it’s a nod to the literal and metaphorical wilderness in which the album was written. More alone in the business end of music, isolated in a cabin while working on the tracks eventually to comprise the record, McMahon shakes off past expectations and successes and asks himself, as an artist, who he is now.
The answer: ever a dreamer; ever a thinker; forever bound to the shores of California.
Opener “Canyon Moon” is easily one of the strongest songs McMahon has ever written, epitomizing the best of his songwriting style. A foreboding tale that evokes the mood of Mulholland Drive, “Moon” employs vocal harmonies, hand-clap percussive play and heavy synths to tell the story of a woman lost beneath a blanket of darkness, both within and without. In my mind, I’m transported to the 101, hands tapping on the wheel while desperately looking to outrun the inescapable self.
Indeed, the entire album, more so than perhaps the Jack’s Mannequin catalogue, feels like a series of vignettes — stillframes and stories, moments in sharp focus. There’s more talking with/about than talking to, a sharing of wisdom and truth favoured over emotional turmoil. This isn’t to say that the raw confessions of albums past are missing — take “Halls” and its familiar feel of being haunted by past mistakes and regret, for example — but more often, the album feels like a 2am conversation on the beach with a drink in hand. “All Our Lives” explores the notion of painful lessons learned and shared in cautionary concern — the idea that the mistakes of one can spare another from a similar fate, if heeded. “There’s only two mistakes I have made/It’s running from the people who could love me best/And trying to fix a world that I can’t change,” Andrew pays forward in his moment of 20/20 hindsight.
And while his albums are always personal by his own admission, songs like “See Her On The Weekend” (which somehow manages to employ the lyric “My girl’s back home with the morning sick” in such catchy fashion, you can’t help but curse him for it) and the electro-orchestral “Cecilia and the Satellite” delve deep into McMahon’s family life. While the former is simply too saccharine for my liking, the “live life to the fullest” vibe of his tribute to his daughter transcends the paternal core to a celebration of the journey we take to find ourselves.
There’s a conscious choice on the album to abandon guitars in favour of keys and vocal effects on this album. It’s a choice that does well in evoking a classic California feel to the tracks: the shimmering synths roll like ocean waves, while the push of the piano allows McMahon’s talents to shine. At times though, the album feels overproduced, overly smoothed. While McMahon claims the album gained “space” from the omission of guitar, there’s times where there’s so much space, the piano is lost in the sonic expanse and doesn’t quite gets its due. The sound is ethereal and dreamy, but I find myself straining my ear to be grounded by those classic chords that drive the best of his back catalogue.
Where this dreamy vibe pays off best are the songs that focus on elements of freedom. “High Dive” is an album highlight, carefully weaving images that resonate with the uncertainty and head-thrown-back abandon of early adulthood. Each note is gently played, a quiet twinkle of the stars blanketing the object of his gaze: “Meet me on the high dive/You’ll dance with your headphones on/So I can watch you all night long/Dancing to someone else’s song.” And if “Canyon Moon” kicks the album off on a lost in the dark vibe, closer “Maps For The Getaway” is a hopeful, “all you need is love” resolution to its confusion, proving that there’s a difference between escape and actual freedom. It bookends the record nicely, offering us another drive down another highway, one with good company. Soaked in 80s influence, “Maps” brings the journey full circle — from shirking the corporate we’re trained to view as ideal (“No white picket fence, no job with the government“) through illness and healing (“The years of hope, the months of rain…I guess we survived it after all“), looking out at last to the future. “All we have is gas in the tank, maps for the getaway/All we have/All we have is time,” McMahon concludes. In light of his battle with cancer, it is all the more powerful a statement to embrace.
Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness has its moments where the pop drifts from the heart-piercing precision of past outings to more average musings, but when it’s balanced, it’s brilliant. The exploration in its approach to composition and sound is a breath of life for a new direction and suits the world Andrew McMahon has created. A strong album, albeit not without faults, it feels warm and inviting, like warm sand beneath bare feet.
This wilderness is inhabited with heart.
Highlights: “Canyon Moon:; “High Dive”; “Maps For The Getaway”; “All Our Lives”
Final Grade: A-
Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness is currently on tour; for tour dates, album details and more, visit Andrew McMahon’s official site.