November 12, 2018 Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – Upside Down Flowers (Album Review)
There was a time, many moons ago, when Andrew McMahon was living wild as a teenage Rock star. Now, older, wiser and exploring a more minimalist soundscape under the guise of Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, he returns on Friday, November 16, 2018, with Upside Down Flowers, via Fantasy Records.
Raised on the East Coast and in the Midwest, Andrew McMahon is a multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist who began writing songs at age nine. While still in high school, he co-founded an early incarnation of the Pop-Punk band Something Corporate. In 2004, he formed Jack’s Mannequin, and then, on the cusp of releasing the band’s 2005 debut, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 22. Eventually fully recovering, McMahon went on to release two more studio albums with Jack’s Mannequin, in addition to composing songs for the NBC series Smash (an endeavor that earned him an Emmy Award nomination in 2013) and establishing The Dear Jack Foundation, one of the first adolescent and young adult specific cancer foundations.
His love of all things musical remains his primary focus, and, rejuvenated and inspired, in 2014, he released the self-titled debut of his latest project, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, which featured the gold-certified single “Cecilia and the Satellite,” written for his daughter. Following, 2017 brought Zombies on Broadway, another wonderful offering from his most recent project. Now, it is time to prepare ourselves for Upside Down Flowers, album number three and his first with Fantasy Records.
The eleven-song Upside Down Flowers was produced by Butch Walker (Weezer, Panic! At The Disco), who also plays drums, bass, and guitar on the album. In addition, the album features guest Keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. (Beck), and strings arranged by Emmy-winning, Tony and Grammy-nominated Vomposer Rob Mathes. As if this all was not impressive enough, it was recorded at Abbey Road Studios.
Upside Down Flowers begins with a glance toward another time in Andrew McMahon’s career: an autobiographical look backward, “Teenage Rockstars” sees a reflective McMahon accompanied by his beloved piano and gentle, near-acoustics. With a 1970s, Elton John-esque feel to the track, it’s an interesting note to open the album on and prepares listeners for the candid storytelling nature of the disc. This is reinforced when he continues to paint autobiographical pictures, this time with a station wagon rolling gently toward the West Coast in “Ohio.” A daydreaming through what will be missed, but an embrace of the possibilities for the future, this track is a positive little head-bopper.
McMahon amps it up with a funkier backbeat on “Blue Vacation” which, despite its whimsical sound, is a serious look at escaping our poisonous, chaotic world for the safety of raising a healthy child on a private island. While it sounds like a lackadaisical splash in the great wide blue, there’s a certain underlying seriousness to the track that gives it its weight. Continuing to pair his storytelling with piano-guided excellence, “Monday Flowers” sees McMahon weaving a poetically melancholic tale of failed romance with a cinematic quality that would easily lend the track to film or TV.
Piano anchors the delicate intensity of “Paper Rain,” which, with its fuller, bolder sound, could easily be a holdover from Zombies on Broadway. It’s lush layers and gentle poetry are exactly what one would expect from Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness: beautifully moving but oddly danceable music that warms the heart. This delicacy continues into “This Wild Ride,” which reads like a lullaby, a gentle ode to closing one’s eyes and having the courage to explore new worlds in preparation for the stormy seas of this reality.
Funktastic bass lines weave throughout the core of many of these songs, particularly “Goodnight, Rock And Roll” – it’s celebratory, worth a hip-shake, but definitely not a goodbye. This contrasts perfectly with “House In the Trees,” which amplifies its layers of sound to tell a twinkling tale of the evolution of friendships – learning when to hang on, when to let go, and how to keep treehouses full of childhood memories alive. Similarly sweet, piano and strings anchor the delicate “Penelope,” a little ode to a girl who drives the world crazy in all the very best ways.
Next, the pace increases and goes upbeat for the confessions of “Careless,” an admission that sometimes the pursuit of our dreams can be so exhausting that the rose-colored glasses can tint blue. Ultimately, the grand finale sees McMahon serving as the light at the end of the tunnel, offering up the last call that is “Everything Must Go,” where nothing gold can stay and you most certainly cannot take it with you into the beyond. It’s hard, but we must say goodbye!
Upside Down Flowers is an exercise in delicately-authored subtleties, an album that embraces minimalism in its sonic compositions, favoring and highlighting McMahon’s always sincere storytelling and candid lyrical content. It is an album that is likely to require multiple listening sessions before fans can truly appreciate all that Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness are placing on offer with the collection, but an enjoyable journey that will ultimately meld to your heart.
So, while many of today’s artists are looking to go bigger, bolder, and slather every second in endless studio accouterments, McMahon has consciously chosen the opposite: a simpler sound that embraces a simpler time when musicians wove stories with words and instrumentation, not with the press of a studio button. Transparent in all the very best ways, Cryptic Rock gives Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness’ Upside Down Flowers 4 of 5 stars.