[30 September 2008]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Blame it on the flip-flops.
Back in 2002, Andrew McMahon fronted a great little emo-pop band called Something Corporate, a Drive-Thru Records signee that got enthusiastically picked up by MCA, largely due to the fact that this small group of 20-somethings had immediately differentiated themselves from the rest of the post-millennial emo-rock pack. They put the piano front and center in all their tracks, displayed a strong sense of melody, and the group exhibited a remarkable sense of fun (which was evident in their videos for singles like “If You C Jordan” and “I Woke Up in a Car”). Yet it was McMahon, the group’s heartthrob-worthy lead singer and songwriter, that wound up garnering most of the publicity… and for good reason: the kid could craft some incredible pop songs, and even with his lyrics occasionally succumbing to juvenilia, he still was leaps and bounds ahead of his competition in terms of sheer songwriting prowess. Oh, and, yeah—he wore flip-flops… all the time.
Every once in awhile, an interviewer would pop a question about McMahon’s favorite footwear, as this overtly casual dress style was somewhat atypical in the pop-punk scene at the time. McMahon never seemed to mind answering these questions, but his wardrobe worked. He inadvertently embodied the archetypal modern-day high school slacker, all casual defiance and smart-yet-snotty attitude. Yet every kid must eventually grow up, and Something Corporate’s sophomore effort, 2003’s North, exhibited a group that was slowly moving beyond their exuberant beginnings into something much more mature (think lots and lots of string sections). The group’s sales never fully materialized—a platinum disc with his name emblazoned on it is something that McMahon likely will not see in his lifetime—but they had developed a fanatical, supportive following—and for good reason too. Here was a band that actually had carved out a distinct identity at a time when a majority of bands that appeared on the Warped Tour were by and large interchangeable in terms of sound.
When you see McMahon today, however, you seem him donning Chuck Taylors.
Though it would be easy to gloss over this subtle wardrobe change, it actually symbolizes a lot of where McMahon is now in his life. After dissolving Something Corporate, McMahon formed a more “mature” side project that went by the name of Jack’s Mannequin, and though the group’s 2005 debut Everything in Transit should have been “just another album”, it was McMahon’s tragic circumstances that turned it into something more. Three months prior the disc’s release, McMahon was diagnosed with leukemia. He was checked into a hospital, and he was informed that his condition was far from ideal. Fortunately, McMahon had endeared himself to the punk community quite strongly. News of his disease prompted influential sites like AbsolutePunk.net to organize a charity wristband drive that wound up raising thousands of dollars to help pay his medical bills—and, in a nod to his past, even charity flip-flops were created on the Jack’s Mannequin website. Though Everything in Transit was supposed to be just another album, McMahon’s much-publicized trials turned it into something much more potent and galvanizing.
Now, three years later and with McMahon’s leukemia in remission, we are finally greeted with Transit‘s official follow-up, The Glass Passenger, adorned with even more orchestral flourishes, towering choruses, and dramatic lyrics than ever before. By all means, this should be McMahon’s moment of triumph, but, unfortunately, The Glass Passenger is a remarkably half-baked collection of songs that lose sight of McMahon’s greatest strengths in favor of a grandiose sense of self-importance.
Things get off to a promising-enough start with “Crashin’”, a mid-tempo triumph that proves to be as musically mature as anything McMahon has penned to date (note the “ah-ah” vocals that punctuate the chorus). It’s hard not to interpret the lyrics as anything other than McMahon describing himself contemplating his own future as a musician following his medical battles:
And even if your voice comes back again
Maybe they’ll be no one listenin’
And even if you find the strength to stand
It doesn’t mean you won’t go missin’
And the world will come crashin’
And the words will come crashin’
And the music comes crashin’
Down on me
Although McMahon spent a good amount of time emphasizing the power of music on Everything in Transit, The Glass Passenger is practically an ode to the art of songwriting. The track “Swim” even opens with the following lines:
You gotta swim
Swim for your life
Swim for the music that saves you
When you’re not sure you’ll survive
It is at this point when we realize that, lyrically, McMahon is pedaling over a lot of the same territory again only three songs into the album. “Swim” even turns into a muddled mess when the lyrics insist that you should swim for the lost politicians who “don’t view their greed as flaw”. Suddenly, McMahon’s messages of hope and musical salvation are not only becoming redundant, but they’re actually colliding with other topics that—simply put—just don’t fit together, and it’s not long before we’re treated to songs where the choruses consist of nothing but clichéd lines like “Big hearts / Big hearts are for breakin’” (“American Love”). McMahon obviously wants The Glass Passenger to be a “statement” album, but, as time wears on, it’s obvious that Passenger is instead an album that was crafted to satisfy other people’s expectations—not his own.
It’s a bit of a cryptic challenge trying to decipher the meaning of songs like “Annie Use Your Telescope”, in which the melody is solid but the lyrics are too vague to offer any sort of meaning, or—in McMahon’s case especially—catharsis. It doesn’t take long before the album simply becomes a game of finding highlights amidst a sea of half-hearted character studies (like how the fluttering synth in the chorus of “Bloodshot” winds up being the best part of the whole song), a task that you never had to do during when listening to either Something Corporate album. McMahon even gives in to the worst cliché of all on the sappy “Caves”, in which his voice achieves a trembly falsetto that borders on outright parody. “Caves”—quite obviously—is intended to be the album’s dramatic finishing statement, as it’s designed in a shifting suite structure and given an overtly-long running time (eight-plus minutes), but McMahon shortchanges himself yet again by not actually ending the album with “Caves”—he instead gives that duty to the absolutely innocuous pop fluff of “Miss California”, lessening any cathartic impact that the disc could’ve had in its big built-up finale. The devil is in the details, and it’s decisions like that that squanders any potential that The Glass Passenger had going for it.
On the late-album ballad “Hammers and Strings (A Lullaby)”, McMahon actually sums up much of his current life in the first verse:
These hammers and strings
Have been followin’ me around
From a box-filled garage
To the dark punk-rock clubs of 1000 American towns
And my friend calls me up
She says “How have you been?”
I say “Dear I’ve been well—yeah the money’s come in
But I miss you like hell
I still hear you in this old piano, yeah”
She says “Andy I know that we don’t talk as much
But I still hear your ghost in these old punk-rock clubs,
C’mon write me a song, give me something to trust
Just promise you won’t let it be just the keys that you touch”
It is in this verse that we see that McMahon has cast himself in the role of “the songwriter”, a figure that other people turn to for trust and comfort. By placing his own name in the song, it’s hard not to view “Hammers and Strings” as nothing more than a way for McMahon to immortalize himself, a move that comes dangerously close to outright pretension. Perhaps if these songs were served with a helping of irony, it would be easier to swallow, but as it is, The Glass Passenger crumbles under its own weight, largely due to the fact that McMahon is no longer writing songs just for fun the fun of it (as he did during his sandal-clad Something Corporate days)—it’s something that he has to do now, as it’s the role that feels he’s been given in life.
In essence: yeah, blame it on the flip-flops.