Aural Impressions: Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness, Self-Titled

From emo-fueled teenage punk rock to a coming of age narrative to mature reflection, Andrew McMahon and his music have come a long, long way in the last 14 years.  We’ve grown with him, rode the rollercoaster of illness and recovery, and now we’re here, survivors looking back on it all.  Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness is another step in the journey, another different sound from a man who’s explored many already.  And it’s really pretty great once you get into it.

  1. Canyon Moon:  The album opens with cold minor piano chords and a steady kick beat, one which appears on nearly every track through the first half of the album.  The lyrics describe a young woman escaping away from California in the dark of autumn, making it immediately an awesome song to drive to.  Andrew gently croons over the reverb-heavy piano and kick before forceful toms break the song into its strong chorus.  Overdubbed harmonies and full drums anchor the short, percussive and crashing hook, quickly transitioning into a post-chorus falsetto vocal.  It’s a good opener, if a bit brief.  The minor key introduction is also a first in the Andrew McMahon catalog.  Canyon Moon was co-written with Kevin Griffin of Better Than Ezra, and at times Andrew’s vocals sound a bit like Dan Layus of Augustana.  It’s different, but still Andrew McMahon at the core.
  2. Cecilia & The Satellite:  The introductory single to the album, it’s a love song for his newborn daughter.  The effect-laden atmosphere, vocals and piano chords harken to the style of The Pop Underground, a simple beat following underneath.  Warm bass fills in the chorus beneath additional synth effects.  Another soaring vocal hook breaches through; it’s a very poppy element, very familiar and radio-friendly.  It’s not my favorite thing, however it works for me when I can picture an entire crowd singing along.  To me, Andrew is at his best when it’s just him and a piano, clear and polished; luckily for those who have similar inclinations, there is in the aether a solo piano version of this song.  And it’s pretty great.
  3. High Dive:  What is my favorite thing, though, is this song.  From the instant I heard a brief clip of it on iTunes in early September, I was totally smitten.  High Dive is a warm song driven by a steady kick beat (again), which is in-filled with syncopated snare clicks and toms, underneath a beautiful piano chord progression and minimal synths.  It’s masterfully paced and structured, pushing forward relentlessly into an even warmer chorus complete with soft bass, an even more fantastic chord progression, fluttering piano, and lyrics that make me incredibly nostalgic for events that never happened.  Andrew’s vocals are wonderful, displaying a power and range not heard since before his illness.  His words paint such a clear picture it’s hard not feel emotional, whether or not you can relate.  All of the elements in High Dive work so well together; it’s the obvious standout from the album.
  4. All Our Lives:  Piano and vocals straight off of People And Things bring us into this next track, which starts telling the story of a drug-addicted friend and his regrets.  Despite the downer lyrics in the verses, it’s another warm track with an explosive chorus.  The rapidly-sung bridge vocals are reminiscent of the break in I’m Ready and the chorus that follows is likewise repeated several times.  The track closes with what sounds like a piano riff played through a guitar amp before fading out.
  5. See Her On The Weekend:  A piano ballad with multi-tracked overlapping vocals, this is the first track on the album to not employ quarters on the kick, which is a nice change of pace, instead using a more diverse full drum kit.  The lyrics are incredibly sentimental, delivered effectively over a warm bed of synth, bass, which remind me of something from Jack’s Mannequin, but I’m not exactly sure what just yet.
  6. Black And White Movies:  Pads and light piano sprinkle over a steady kick beat (welcome back) transitioning into synth strings during the verse.  It’s a song for a cloudy late-fall afternoon at the beach, yet often it draws me into a winter state-of-mind.  One of my favorite bits from this album occurs during the chorus as it enters its second half;  the piano shifts from C♯ to Bm as Andrew sings “all alone,” a change that hits me right in the musical feels, so to speak.  The sparse bridge of “are you home” is another sentimental dagger in an album filled to the brim with longing and nostalgia.  My third favorite of this bunch.
  7. Driving Through A Dream:  A simple piano, bass, and pad song driven by a rock drum beat, underneath subtly reverberating vocals.  A hypnotic circular vocal melody echoes through the chorus, oft repeating.  It’s a good song to fall asleep to, especially when the lyrics themselves are telling you to.  The bright piano in the bridge and outro are a welcome addition, bringing back a syncopated style more regularly heard in the Something Corporate and early Jack’s Mannequin days.  Another good song to drive to (obviously), just don’t drift off.
  8. Halls:  Stuttering effects and a powerful hopping kick beat usher in a cold piano riff.  The lyrics initially describe a rainstorm; the turbulent music fits perfectly.  This is classic Jack’s Mannequin, augmented only slightly by production.  The huge chorus of top-notch vocals and piano chords brings the listener right back to the Wildernessera, made even stronger by self-harmonizing and additional echoing background vocals.  The song stops completely at the end of the bridge, except for a solo piano playing a disjointed, free-metered riff as a lonely break ahead of another strong chorus climax.  Smooth percussion and forward-moving piano close out Halls, another definite standout track from the album.
  9. Rainy Girl:  Just Andrew and piano.  It’s very simple, somewhat repetitive, but very sweet.  Flourishes of Beatles-esque strings dot the second half, as the piano progression follows a similar style.  It’s almost a happier, alternate-reality version of Walking By.  Perhaps a little less emotional than the Something Corporate classic about presumably the same subject, but nevertheless a good song.
  10. Maps For The Getaway:  Something about Maps screams closing track.  Maybe it’s the descending chord progression, the processed piano riff, or the reverberating vocals.  The lyrics speak of the past, more directly than the others on the album, while the chorus contrasts with a picture of the present, one which appears bleak from one perspective, completely freeing from another.  These are the words of a man who’s lived through some shit and emerged alright on the other side.  This is one of the more synth-heavy tracks on the album, driven forward by electronic-sounding drums and a warbly bass pad.  It’s a fitting end to the journey, one which feels much longer than the 37-minute run-time of the album.

Despite the summer feel of Everything In Transit, the open floodgate into the rest of Andrew McMahon’s music for me back in 2007, his sound will always be strongest for me in the fall.  Each song is a nostalgia-filled vignette, recalling either an old friend, a time past, or the girl he’d left at home while locked away writing this very album.  It’s not immediately accessible, nor is it the most unique in terms of song structure, however a few short spins later and it’s grown on me considerably.  The music is an evolution from last year’s The Pop Underground EP, and once adjusted to the new musical style, which may take even the most seasoned fan unawares, beneath is some of the finest, most evocative songwriting in his repertoire.  I cannot wait to see Andrew perform some of these songs in person– and I don’t have to, I’ll be seeing him this Saturday in San Francisco!  Fourth time in two years, and each time it gets better and better.  I can’t wait to see where this continued journey takes us.

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