Andrew McMahon is one of those artists that isn’t afraid to reinvent himself. And not just once – he’s transformed his sound and moniker a few times now. Early fans were lucky to see him as the pop punk leader in Something Corporate in the early 2000s; a few years later, he unveiled a new project called Jack’s Mannequin. It wasn’t quite so punk, but it was some of the most personal material he had released.
And now that chapter of his career has ended and he’s on to the next. Now under the guise of Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness, the versatile music veteran has just released his self-titled first solo album. And it doesn’t disappoint: Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness is one of the best albums he has released.
Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness opens with a song that sets a tone for the whole record. “Canyon Moon” begins with “The sun ran out on a cold October,” backed by a driving pulse and a haunting atmosphere, and it paints a picture of the dry expanse of a desert land. The album was actually recorded in a similar place, with Andrew working in a cabin in the desert wilderness for most of the songs. Andrew described the inspiration behind the song to Billboard: “‘Canyon Moon’ is really the story of a girl escaping Los Angeles. It’s not necessarily my story but I think there were a lot of elements of the canyon in the song — and my own love/hate history with Los Angeles.”
The next song is more specific to Andrew’s own life. “Cecilia And The Satellite” was the first single, and is an ode to his baby daughter Cecilia. As he stated, “I wanted to have a snapshot of who I was in the years leading up to meeting her.” He goes all the way back to his teenage years when he first learned to drive, then gives a nod to Something Corporate, saying “been around the world with a punk rock band, and I’ve seen London and I’ve played Japan.” “Cecilia And The Satellite” is reflective and personal, a marriage of Andrew’s past with his new present. This is a theme that persists in the record.
“High Dive” is another one of those flashback songs, but instead of simply reflecting on the past, it takes the past and rewrites history. It feels like we’re transported back to his first Jack’s Mannequin album, Everything In Transit, and “High Dive” is like a response to his own questions of “where are you now?” (from “The Mixed Tape”). He “wrote a new song about your new life,” and this is how it could have gone if Andrew and his longtime girlfriend Kelly hadn’t gotten back together.
“All Our Lives” is an inspirational song that draws from other characters’ misfortune. It’s important to learn from others’ mistakes, and know what you can do to improve. Andrew sings that his only 2 mistakes have been “running from the people who could love me best and trying to fix a world that I can’t change.” Everyone goes through hardships, and all we can do is learn from them and try to set it right.
The next track, “See Her On The Weekend,” slows things down a bit. This is one of the more meta songs on the record, as Andrew describes the writing and recording process he took for these songs. The song is about his trips into the desert to work during the week, and then Friday would come and he’d return to his pregnant wife.
“Black And White Movies” is a highlight on the album. Andrew asks in the chorus, “are you home tonight?” and “do you ever rewind to the summer you knew me?” This feels like another reflection of his past, another beckoning to the “where are you now?” refrain of Everything In Transit. “Black And White Movies” has a feeling of nostalgia, almost sad, but like a fond memory of good times from his youth. The delicate flute gives the song a dreamlike quality and a sense of peace.
“Driving Through A Dream” returns to the desert night setting first introduced in “Canyon Moon.” But instead of a haunting vibe, this song is like a gentle lullaby. It has a childlike innocence, and a foggy, dreamy feeling. It sounds perfect for Andrew’s young daughter.
“Halls” is another highlight on the album, and one filled with references back to his early days in music. It starts off very meta, as Andrew sings “Met the band in a bar next to the lobby, looking for another story I could tell.” He launches into the story there, shifting back again to the time that inspired his first Jack’s Mannequin record. “When I left town we were headed for the altar, and I told you I’d be back before too long; cut my hair and I found me a new girlfriend, thought a broken heart could write a perfect song.” This song could almost have been on Everything In Transit, except that “Halls” has the wisdom gained after years looking back.
“Rainy Girl” is another standout. It has minimal, simple instrumentation: All it needs are the jingly piano and Andrew’s heartfelt falsetto vocals. Strings come in towards the middle, before being stripped away by the end. This is an innocent love song, and it has a timeless quality that feels like it could have come out of the glory days of early 1900s standards.
The album ends with “Maps For The Getaway.” This one feels like a perfect balance between seeing memories of the past and being content in the present. Andrew sings “I guess that we survived it after all.” He declares that “there’s no sign of yesterday, all we have is time.” Despite the big breakup and life-or-death battle with leukemia, and in spite of the years of aftermath following that trial, Andrew and his high school sweetheart Kelly made it through. They survived the hardest times of their lives, and now all they have is the future with their new daughter Cecilia. It’s a perfect summation of the whole record, and great note to end it on.
Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness feels complete and like a rounded story, and is a perfect debut under this new moniker. Every time Andrew sets out with a new band name, a new musical style and complete inspiration make up the albums that follow. Each band he’s been in has been a reflection of a different version of him. This album sounds like a fresh start, but is also a return to form in a certain way – Andrew sounds younger now than he has in a long time. He has a youthful energy back, but it is balanced by a wiser acceptance of all that has happened in his life so far. He is no longer weighed down by his battle with leukemia, but he has grown from it.
This album is very reflective and has plenty of nostalgia, but it doesn’t feel stuck in the past. Rather, Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness is a combination of everything that Andrew has experienced – it is an honest representation of a person that has lived. Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness is an incredible album, and the best that has come out this year.
You can buy Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness on iTunes now.
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