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Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness

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    Going through a crucible has the tendency to change a person and make them stronger. That was the case for pop-punk/piano-pop songsmith Andrew McMahon when he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005. The Something Corporate frontman, already the mastermind behind a pair of exceptional LPs with his former band, finished mastering his greatest record, 2005’s Everything in Transit, the day he was diagnosed. Remarkably, the CD still released on schedule, despite the fact that McMahon had to cancel his tours and undergo chemotherapy. Because of that fact, it became the kind of record that transcended its genre. For fans, it was simultaneously an album that could be a personal soundtrack as well as the soundtrack to McMahon’s inspiring rise-from-the-ashes recovery.

    The result of the Everything in Transit phenomenon—aside from the fact that the record skyrocketed quickly into all-time top fives for fans everywhere—was that it made sure no one would ever again have rational expectations about what Andrew McMahon could accomplish as a songwriter. For most people, the rest of McMahon’s time performing under the moniker of Jack’s Mannequin followed a law of diminishing returns, and it’s likely that his self-titled LP under a new moniker—the annoyingly unwieldy name, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness—will continue the trend of his records being criminally underappreciated.

    In pre-release interviews, McMahon said that the new record was continuing where Everything in Transit had left off. That’s not necessarily true, as Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness actually has more in common with 2008’s The Glass Passenger or 2011’s People & Things than it does with McMahon’s seminal 2005 classic. There are flashes of EIT’s slick, streamlined power pop sound here and there, from the rousing chorus of album highlight “All Our Lives” to the wistful closing track, “Maps for the Getaway,” which echoes the melodic line from “Rescued.” For the most part, though, McMahon is mining a lot of the same classic rock and Americana sounds that he explored on Passenger, and especially on Things. “Halls” is a dancier rewrite of “Amy I,” while the luminescent “Driving Through a Dream” starts off a bit like “Television,” one of the last record’s top cuts. Meanwhile, the Tom Petty/Bob Dylan folk influences that People & Things had (on songs like “Amelia Jean” and “Restless Dream”) are absolutely here once more, whether we’re “dancing to someone else’s song” in “High Dive” or cruising down a midnight road under the “Canyon Moon.”

    As you might expect from the last paragraph, almost everything on Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness feels downright familiar. Even when McMahon does try relatively new things on songs like “Cecilia & The Satellite” (the post-fun. lead single) or “Black and White Movies” (a song that moves from melancholy piano-driven verses to a dancefloor-ready chorus), he’s not reinventing the wheel. McMahon’s Pop Underground EP from last year, even though just about no one loved its synth-heavy 1980s sound, took more risks in four songs than this record takes in 10. Probably most irritating, McMahon retreads melodies he’s used before on more than one occasion—and the melodies already aren’t nearly as razor sharp as the hooks on Everything in Transit were.

    For me, though, there’s never a moment when the familiarity of the proceedings detracts from the overall enjoyment of the record. Like I’ve often said about my favorite artists, hearing a new Andrew McMahon album at this point feels like reconvening with an old friend, and Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness is especially welcoming given that it’s probably his most consistent front-to-back set of songs since Transit.

    The biggest difference between this record and that one is that, where Everything in Transit was driven primarily by huge choruses that you just had to sing along to, this one thrives on McMahon’s effortless sense of craft as a verse writer. Granted, this guy has always been someone who could make verses and pre-choruses as memorable as the actual hooks. From “I Woke Up in a Car” (“I met a girl who kept tattoos for homes that she had loved/If I were her I’d paint my body ‘til all my skin was gone”) to “Konstantine” (take you pick), all the way to more recent stuff like “Hammers and Strings” and the aforementioned “Television” (“And what if you could move the needle to a more forgiving song?”), McMahon has been able to write songs that are compelling from the very first note and the very first word.

    That happens here more than once. “All Our Lives” is arguably the best example, a tightly-wound piece of storytelling that details an encounter Andrew had with a friend who ended up on the wrong side of the American dream. “There’s only one mistakes that I have made,” the friend remarks in the first pre-chorus: “It’s giving up the music in my fingertips/By trying to get to heaven through my veins.” The words and melody fit together like they’ve always been there, and the payoff from the anthemic chorus is even more powerful given the struggle and adversity evident in the verse.

    A similar thing happens again on “Halls,” a song about a relationship that ended long ago, but which still lingers with the narrator. “When I left town we were heading for the altar, and I told you I’d be back before too long,” McMahon sings. “Cut my hair and found me a new girlfriend, thought a broken heart could writer a perfect song/And it did and I was right, so now you’re gone.” It’s a knife twist of a lyric, one that you wouldn’t quite expect from a song with the skittering synths and crisp drum machines this one utilizes. And just like with “All Our Lives,” it lends weight and personal meaning to the more universal statement taking up residence in the chorus: “You echo in the halls.”

    Arguably the best writing McMahon does here, though, is on “Maps for the Getaway.” One of my very favorite things about People & Things was how “Casting Lines” ended the record with a homecoming. Since Everything in Transit had begun by striking out for the West Coast and a “Holiday from Real,” “Casting Lines” felt like the natural conclusion for the narrative that had begun there. McMahon said as much in his explanation for why he decided to retire the Jack’s Mannequin moniker after that record. The story was done, and it was time for him to move on.

    Here, he’s starting a new story: it’s not about a whirlwind summer on the West Coast, or about McMahon’s battle with cancer. Instead, it’s about his family. “Cecilia,” obviously, is about his daughter. “Maps,” meanwhile, is evidently about his wife and everything they’ve weathered together. It’s a beautiful testament to a relationship that doesn’t break down when times get tough (“The balcony, the hills, the pain/The years of hope, the months of rain/Now that we’re outside it, I guess we survived it after all” almost has to be a reference, in part, to McMahon’s struggle to beat leukemia), but one that keeps going and going, like a reliable automobile. “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,” rings the chorus, awash with a synth line that sounds like the melody from Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen.” It’s one of the best songs Andrew has ever written, and it feels like an incredibly appropriate ending point for this poignant and personal collection of songs.

    Some will wish that Andrew had decided to be a bit more adventurous with this record. Others, probably, will balk at the lyrics about kids and family and wish for the day when Andrew was singing about Jimmy Eat World and those nights in his car when the first star you see may not be a star. But Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness is the sound of an artist who is completely happy and completely comfortable in his life, and that’s a beautiful thing. Over the past few weeks, I’ve really come to understand, in a new way, what family means to me. There are things in life that we can choose to make the foundation of who we are: work, religion, family. I choose the latter, and from the sound of this record, Andrew does too. It’s not a perfect album, but the core sentiment–of always cherishing the people you love–has been particularly resonant to me lately, and the songs are catchy and effortless enough for me to fall more and more in love with them every time I press play.

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