It feels like not that long ago there was a new Andrew McMahon album out. In truth, it’s been an absolute roller coaster of a year and a half — I’ve even seen him perform live twice since then. As I noted during my review of his band’s last album Zombies on Broadway, I thought that latest work was mostly sub-par for him. The youthful energy that blew our minds on Everything In Transit and the new paths forged by his self-titled Wilderness debut, for example, were lacking on major swaths of Zombies, replaced by boilerplate filler and hollow attempts at soaring arena anthems. Now, just one calendar year later, we have another full-length release from Andrew and company. Should I be worried that this album is rushed, unpolished, or otherwise coming from an depleted creativity reserve, or does it rectify the things I didn’t like about Zombies, whilst building on its most excellent aspects? Well, I liked the previously released single “Ohio” quite a bit, as I’ll go into below, so that’s a good sign. How does the rest of the album fare? Let’s find out:
- Teenage Rockstars: Thick, slow piano chords make one heck of an entrance. To add a sonar-like bleep and acoustic guitar on top makes this an immediately attention-grabbing ballad. Production is done in part in a lo-fi style, enhancing the throwback feel of the autobiographical lyrics. It feels a lot like old Something Corporate — like, pre-major label debut old. Add in a few nifty effects, like a sonic reversal for good measure and it’s a perfect fusion of the old and new. I have a good feeling about this record.
- Ohio: I first heard this song performed live this past May, on a stage full of furniture, books, and windowed walls. Building off the solo piano + electronics feel of “Canyon Moon,” this one is an emotional journey from Ohio to California, featuring a distorted, echoed piano hook and a half-melancholic, half-hopeful progression, all building to an improbable singalong of the titular state’s name. Instrumentation is reserved, relying on a variety of synths and guitar flavors for texture, but keeping focus on the clean vocals. As a lead single, it certainly hits the mark — the question remains, how does the record as a whole compare? As an evolution of this sound, it really could fit in well on either of Wilderness’s first two albums. Safe, but good.
- Blue Vacation: Airy and light, the pendulum has swung to the other side as we’ve got electronic drum effects and a bit of Lennon-style reverb on the vocals. The contrast between an active bassline and high treble piano chords puts this nearly in electropop territory. Strings in the bridge only make this feeling stronger, and a quick guitar solo pulls us from Hooverphonic to Ratatat. This is a very catchy song, keeping its hooks from getting too big, but also producing an aural palette that doesn’t sound at all like Andrew McMahon. It’s new and it works.
- Monday Flowers: The energy is replaced with a contemplative solo piano sequence and sorrowful vocal line, leading into a full band song. The bass rides high up the neck, and a mandolin flutters in the background. Strings augment the sadness, as the piano stays in a minor key, despite efforts to break out. The chord progression reminds a bit of the last album, but with a few refined twists and turns added in; an appreciated evolution. As it closes, I’m reminded of Death Cab for Cutie — now there’s a connection I’ve never made before.
- Paper Rain: The treble-heavy piano sound is a staple of the Wilderness sound — the progression that stutters and bounces here is very much akin to “Cecilia and the Satellite” or “Dead Man’s Dollar.” The feel here is different though, with a steady snare shuffle and a laid back chorus. Andrew’s vocals soar, but the band holds back, maintaining forward motion with a sense of purpose and inevitability, very much like “High Dive.” I really really like this song. There’s an emotion here that I felt was largely missing on Zombies, and so far this album is overflowing with a grounded earnestness, the likes of which I almost haven’t heard since The Glass Passenger. “Paper Rain” is an instant classic.
- This Wild Ride: A lullabye, this one cranks the vocal reverb up and puts the piano into the compactor. Gentle guitars and percussion fill the space on the wider sides of the ears. With a waltz rhythm and frequent falsetto, I’m flashing back to a song like “Walking By.” It’s short and sweet.
- Goodnight, Rock and Roll: Immediately, it feels like a song off of Magical Mystery Tour. Unexpected chords, a chunky, ever shifting bass, consistent echoed piano, synth strings and processed vocals make this a near-perfect facsimile of 1967-68 era Beatles. There are also tributes to David Bowie, Tom Petty, and Prince, to name a few, buried within the nostalgia-laden lyrics. A chorus blown wide open and a hook-filled bridge elevate this from mere stylistic tribute to something unique and special; there’s nothing even close to this in Andrew’s extensive repertoire. On first listen, this is easily my favorite of the album.
- House in the Trees: Warm bass and an undulating piano riff, flanked by acoustic guitars, make this a track with a feel reminiscent of “Black and White Movies;” one that paints a sonic picture of a beach at sunset, a song to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway to. Of all of the songs on this record so far, this is easily the closest to the old self-titled Wilderness-style. It might even be the worst on the album; no, it’s not bad at all — the bar is just suddenly that high.
- Penelope: “Rainy Girl” part two, we’ve got a somber piano ballad driven by heavy chords and supplemented with a string quartet and bass. It too is Beatles-esque, again with heavy reverb on the vocals, and strings that scream of “Yesterday.” I’m liking this a whole lot. Andrew’s talked of their influence on his music, but I don’t think it’s been made so explicit as it has here.
- Careless: Half time! A cut rhythm driven by toms, a melody lead by a harmonium, and a vacant plunked piano line make this one of the more strikingly different sounds out of this band, while also marking a line straight back to Everything In Transit. There’s oodles warmth, to be sure, but also moments of spine-tingling transitions, most notably in the second half of the chorus and the bridge, the latter of which rides on the back of a crunch guitar riff and reeks of “La La Lie.” You can’t go wrong referencing Transit, even as the sound continues to evolve.
- Everything Must Go: We’ve got a slow heartbeat around which a song blossoms wonderfully. From solo piano arpeggios, we add cheery pads, acoustic percussion, steady guitar, and ultimately, a deep atmosphere of rumbling bass and thick synth. There are moments of dissonance, infecting the climax with a slight unease, as unfamiliar dulcimers and bass effects fill the room. It presses on to conclusion nonetheless, with a repeated refrain of the title and layers upon layers of backing vocals before it lets the piano take us out by itself.
I’m going to make an irresponsibly wild statement, one that I might regret after only a couple listens to this album — this is my second favorite Andrew McMahon album, behind only Everything in Transit. Crazy, I know! But seriously, there isn’t a bad song on here, and the good ones are really good. I’m amazed by the sheer scope of styles Andrew toys with on this record, from dips back into his bands of yore, to other classic rock, pop, electronic influences, to say nothing of the heartfelt and sincere stories each song tells. The Wilderness has finally flourished into their own here with their third record. After a mixed but good debut and a mediocre follow-up with notable high points, I can finally say that this is record I’ve been waiting for from them. And not even two years after the last one, I’m absolutely stunned. Where did all of this awesomeness come from? Upside Down Flowers is an absolute joy, and I’ll be listening to it for years to come.