Review: Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness Captures Nostalgia With Vivid Storytelling On ‘Upside Down Flowers’
Today, just one year after releasing his second album, Zombies On Broadway, Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness dropped his impressive new album, Upside Down Flowers. This marks Andrew McMahon’s third album under his Wilderness moniker. Although his previous bands, Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin, each stopped after their third albums, with Upside Down Flowers, Andrew McMahon sounds more inspired than ever. Its 11 songs are perhaps less experimental than those on Zombies On Broadway, instead choosing familiar territory – as heard on his solo debut – and musical influences that have shaped his career. Ultimately, Upside Down Flowers find the right blend of familiar and fresh, of nostalgic and new.
The self-titled debut, Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness, was a nostalgic record. In much the same way, Upside Down Flowers is too, but it takes the nostalgia even further. Many of the songs here dive far into Andrew’s past. Lead single “Ohio” narrates the big move Andrew and his family made from Ohio to California decades ago. “House In The Trees” also illuminates Andrew’s childhood and a time when his father was sick, then fast forwards to his 20s and his Leukemia diagnosis. “Teenage Rockstars” sits between those two moments in time, documenting how he and his friends started Something Corporate when they were still in high school. Even “Goodnight, Rock And Roll” feels like a longing for the past, as Andrew describes the music idols that changed his life and are now fading away.
Nostalgia isn’t just a lyrical theme, either. In many ways, Upside Down Flowers draws from ’80s influences, if in a less in-your-face way than most ’80s-inspired music these days. Throughout the record, Andrew’s vocals have distortion and echoed effects, lending it a sound like it’s coming from an old record or cassette. It’s like a sepia filter on a faded photograph. However, the past manifests differently in other places. Songs like “Goodnight Rock And Roll” revive a sound and energy reminiscent of Something Corporate’s carefree, punk rock roots.
However, many of the songs on Upside Down Flowers explore current issues and modern themes. “This Wild Ride” is a sweet lullaby for Andrew’s young daughter, Cecilia. (Yes, the one who inspired his biggest hit, “Cecilia And The Satellite.”) “Careless” finds Andrew admitting his mistakes and professing his undying love for his wife. On “Blue Vacation,” Andrew drops references to current politics and social issues facing America now before escaping to a dreamy chorus. All three of these songs are highlights on the album.
Another key theme is storytelling. The aforementioned nostalgia songs paint vivid pictures, but so do the songs with less-clear meanings and even fictional characters. It’s unclear if “Penelope” is about a specific person, but the lyrics craft a very real character. “Monday Flowers” plays out like a movie, opening with love, wallowing in heartache, and finding resolution by the end. “Paper Rain” describes a person desperate to fix his luck, and a Las Vegas casino may be the best place to do so. Album closer “Everything Must Go” is an odd song, mainly made up of household descriptions before declaring it all has to go, and yet it still sends a clear message within a vivd setting.
Upside Down Flowers unfolds into an amazing album. It highlights the best of what Andrew McMahon has done throughout his career, solidifying his sound and reaffirming his true talent. This album is a marvelous addition to his full catalogue, and hopefully not the end of the Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness name.
Track by Track
“Teenage Rockstars” – Upside Down Flowers starts rather unconventionally. “Teenage Rockstars” is an oddly slow way to begin the album, and yet somehow it works. It’s an epic prologue to the rest of the songs. Andrew describes how he and his high school friends formed Something Corporate, found success, and grew apart. “Teenage Rockstars” sets the nostalgic tone for the record.
“Ohio” – The first single from the album, “Ohio” leads us further into Andrew’s past. It stars off slowly, but then picks up speed and grows into a magical chorus. Percussive details in the second verse add to the song’s crescendo.
“Blue Vacation” – With distorted drums and hand claps to kick things off, “Blue Vacation” takes us to present day. Andrew touches on different social issues and throws some shade on current politicians, then turns his attention to escapism on a mesmerizing chorus. “Blue Vacation” is rich with musical details, a bit of a sassy attitude, and some of the best melody on the record. Its energy feels like that found on earlier Andrew McMahon albums – think Everything In Transit by his band Jack’s Mannequin. It’s easily one of the best songs on Upside Down Flowers.
“Monday Flowers” – While the previous three songs were already released as singles, “Monday Flowers” is the first unheard song so far. Andrew paints the rise and fall of a whirlwind romance over the course of one week, crafting a story that sounds like a 1950s film. It’s rich musical layers – with strings and a mandolin – further the song’s bittersweet, old-fashioned style. The heartbreak of “he loved her, he loved her not” finally gives way to closure with “she loved him, she loved him not” – if she’s moved on, then its ending isn’t too sad, is it? “Monday Flowers” is another highlight on the album.
“Paper Rain” – To celebrate the album’s release, “Paper Rain” is the newest single, and as of today, it also has a music video. Sonically, it has a southwestern style that’s reminiscent of Andrew’s 2014 song, “Canyon Moon.” “Paper Rain” is set in Las Vegas and describes someone who is down on his luck. However, he’s determined to solve the issues with some skillful gambling. This song isn’t immediately gripping, but it grows better with each listen.
“This Wild Ride” – This album’s lullaby is “This Wild Ride,” a sweet song about protecting your sleeping companion. Its chorus once again shows off Andrew’s lovely falsetto as he croons, “Cause I’m gonna sing, you are the bird, I’m the ocean that rocks you to sleep.” “This Wild Ride” feels like it ends too soon, though it’s not a short song.
“Goodnight, Rock And Roll” – Upside Down Flowers changes gears as it moves into “Goodnight, Rock And Roll.” With a fun groove, hand claps, and an upbeat tempo, Andrew talks about running out of time without caring about the looming end. Andrew’s heroes are headed for their curtain calls, and it can feel like the end of rock and roll. As he sings in the second verse, “I never got to know you, but your songs got me through the day” – a sentiment most music fans can relate to! Of all the songs on Upside Down Flowers, this feels the most like Something Corporate, with its carefree attitude and punk sound.
“House In The Trees” – Andrew’s autobiographical nostalgia returns with “House In The Trees”. The first verse describes his childhood friend Jamie and the shenanigans they got up to. Verse #2 takes us to Andrew’s early 20s and his diagnosis with leukemia. Aaron was a close friend, but they lost touch after Andrew’s illness. It’s a relatable song about the “bittersweet memory” we all have about our past.
“Penelope” – This short, quirky song describes a woman named Penelope. She has her own way of doing things, and while the whole world may drive her crazy, she drives the world crazier! Set against piano and strings, “Penelope” is a bittersweet song with a childlike wondrousness about it. Musically, it’s similar to “Rainy Girl” from the first Wilderness album.
“Careless” – Drums, strumming, and extra energy set the tone for “Careless”. It’s a song about pushing others away in order to chase your own dreams. But hindsight being 20/20, Andrew recognizes how careless he was, and professes that if had a chance to start over, he’d make every song for her. As he sings in the chorus, “I’m breaking free, but what good is free if I cannot share it with you?” “Careless” recalls his Jack’s Mannequin days, and is a highlight on the album.
“Everything Must Go” – Upside Down Flowers closes with an interesting song that spends the verses describing various furniture, appliances, gadgets, and needless possessions. All the things we have, Andrew argues, must go. Instead, all they need is each other. Who needs a house with stuff? “Our home is the road, the sky.” It’s a unique song, but it’s a fitting way to end the album.
Highlights on Upside Down Flowers include: “Blue Vacation,” “Monday Flowers,” “Goodnight, Rock And Roll,” “House In The Trees,” and “Careless.”
You can buy or stream Upside Down Flowers from your favorite music provider now.