Andrew McMahon has seen his share of ups and downs throughout his career. He was the lead singer of the popular pop-punk group Something Corporate, trudged on to a solo career while his band was on hiatus, had to battle leukemia, and came out the other end under his new moniker Jack’s Mannequin. After many years of success, McMahon has once again left his past behind to forge ahead on a new musical path, this time into the wilderness, so to speak. Andrew’s new album “Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness” is a great logical step in his career, as he settles into his life as a thirty-something father, and it proves to be one of his most heartfelt, warm, and sincere efforts to date.
From the start of the opener “Canyon Moon,” you can tell this is an Andrew McMahon album in the line of the classic Jack’s Mannequin work, but there are some clear differences. The song, like most on the album, has a warm, almost ethereal quality to it, as the piano-driven melody helps with visualizing the story being told by the lyrics. The airy quality of the music really allows you to sink into the stories McMahon is telling on this album, and creates a really peaceful and enjoyable listening experience that continues seamlessly through the end of the album. Second track “Cecilia and the Satellite” showcases the effortless transition between Jack’s Mannequin and Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. McMahon evokes all the pop sentimentality of his Jack’s Mannequin days (the oh-oh chorus being a classic example) while focusing his songwriting on his daughter Cecilia. The story of the song is of a new father being in awe of his newborn baby, and vowing to protect and be there for her. It’s great to hear McMahon exploring these very honest and emotional feelings through this song, and it turns out to be one of the catchiest tracks on the album.
One of my favorite tracks on the album is “High Dive,” an upbeat, nostalgic tune that brings some extra energy for the first time on the album. After a few listens, the last line of the chorus (“I could watch you all night long dancing to someone else’s song”) was stuck in my head, and the whole song is excellently complemented by McMahon’s layered piano and synth lines. The album continues on with a mixture of the same formulas from the first couple of songs, but it stays poignant and interesting from track to track in a way I never thought any Jack’s Mannequin album ever did. “All Our Lives” is equal parts musically upbeat, nostalgic, somber and personal as McMahon utters one of my favorite single lines from the album; “If I could tell her something, I would tell her this: there’s only two mistakes that 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.” The track “See her on the Weekend” shows McMahon baring his soul about his touring life and how it probably affects his young family. The honesty of this track really highlights McMahon’s continued development as a songwriter, as he shows he’s very capable of looking inside and writing a personal, self-effacing song that is both thoughtful and catchy. “Black and White Movies” and “Driving through a Dream” are similar tracks with a strong emphasis on storytelling, each driven by a great interplay between piano and synth. These tracks fall in line greatly with what’s been established as the Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness sound.
“Halls” starts with a synth line that for some reason reminds me a lot of 90’s pop act Savage Garden. I may be crazy finding that parallel, but one parallel that wouldn’t be crazy to make is with Jack’s Mannequin’s last album “People and Things.” This song, for me at least, bridges the gap between the two projects, as it features a bold chorus that’s reminiscent of some of his previous efforts. It’s a very solid track that helps to wind down the album. On an album that’s full of heartfelt, piano-driven tracks, it’s difficult to call one song a definitive ballad, but if there is a ballad on this album “Rainy Girl” is it. Very somber, yet vocally poignant, “Rainy Girl’ is a sleeper for me on this album, as I find myself getting into it more and more every time I hear it. The final track on the album is titled “Maps for the Getaway,” and it is unequivocally my favorite song on the album. From the driving beat, to the haunting synth lines and piano, to the amazing lyrics, this song truly epitomizes what this album is and where McMahon is in his life. The chorus sums up the album nicely with these lyrics; “No cash in the bank, no paid holidays, all we have is gas in the tank, maps for the getaway, all we have is time.” If there’s a take home message for this album, this song says it; learn to appreciate what you have and who you have with you. The songs ends with the haunting music track fading out, and I find myself usually pressing repeat on this song just as it fades out, wanting there to be a little more. It’s always great to have that sort of feeling with an album, and very few have done that for me. Andrew picked the perfect song to close this album on without doubt.
I have to admit I was a tad bit skeptical when I heard Andrew McMahon announce he was ditching the Jack’s Mannequin moniker and continuing on with his career with another musical vehicle. I was glad I had least got to see Jack’s Mannequin perform just before they called it quits, but I thought it was a bit different of an approach for McMahon to ditch the popular and marketable name and forge along essentially from square one again. But, after hearing this album, I get why Andrew McMahon needed to leave Jack’s Mannequin in the past. It seems that Jack’s had served its purpose for McMahon as his creative outlet for years, and it was now time for him to explore who he is as a songwriter in relation to where he is in his life. While it’s daring to rebrand oneself, it’s also honest to admit that life changes and ok to adapt as such. McMahon has done that with this album, as he tells us what matters to him in his life now, and expresses it with the kind of music he wants to play. Will Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness have the kind of commercial impact that Something Corporate or Jack’s Mannequin had? I’m not sure, but I don’t think that matters to McMahon at all at this point. This is the project of a man who has figured out who he wants to be, and this album is a heartfelt, passionate work for his fans to either enjoy or not. I think this album is terrific in so many ways, definitely better than I could have anticipated given my trepidations about the project. I definitely recommend any old fans of his, or even anyone who’s never given his bands a listen to sit down with this album and give it a chance.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Recommended Tracks: Maps of the Getaway, High Dive, Cecilia and the Satellite, All Our Lives