People and Things is an interesting name for Jack’s Mannequin’s third studio outing. In reality, that title could apply to any number of records, most of which musically and lyrically are occupied by, well, people and things. Front man Andrew McMahon is clearly well versed in the art of brevity, but the rest of People and Things probably takes the title’s conciseness a bit too far. This is interesting, however, given McMahon’s personal story, which is well known by now.
In 2005, McMahon was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Fortunately, the disease was diagnosed early, and after several treatments and a stem cell donation from his sister, McMahon came out the victor. As a result, the critical analysis of McMahon’s work after his cancer treatments have overall been concerned with how his music reflects the things he went through while having leukemia. For the most part, it seems that his musical spirit hasn’t faded any; the last LP McMahon released under the Jack’s Mannequin moniker, 2008’s Glass Passenger, was still as tuneful and spirited as the band’s debut, Everything in Transit. Though the latter of the two was the better album, it seems that in spite of suffering from a terrible malady, McMahon has never ceased wanting to make the music that he feels passionate about—that, most would rightly say, is the mark of a fine musician.
Unfortunately, despite McMahon’s artistic aspirations, People and Things is as generic of an album as the two words that make up the album’s title. The requisite elements of Jack’s Mannequin’s style are all here in the same fashion that they’ve been on past records, but that’s precisely the problem. McMahon’s ability to write a catchy, piano-driven pop song haven’t been in question since the inherent infectiousness of Everything in Transit was released. All that People and Things does is add more tuneful tracks to the band’s oeuvre. The album is fine for a casual listen, but that’s about all that it demands.
This is strange, given the potential that McMahon has to make Jack’s Mannequin something more than just a group with a knack for a good hook. Placing the piano at the forefront of his music is a smart move for McMahon to make. Though some might think that’s an insignificant choice, it benefits the music much better than if he had placed the guitar at the forefront, which would have placed the album in even more generic territory. On songs like album highlight “Amy, I” and “My Racing Thoughts”, it’s the piano that’s driving the melodies home, and it does so far more effectively than any of the other instruments on the album. McMahon manages to be expressive with the instrument even though the music doesn’t often match his goals. This paradox manifests itself most interestingly on “Hey Hey Hey (We’re All Gonna to Die)”. Having been diagnosed with a disease that has taken the lives of many, one would expect McMahon to be able to explore death musically better than most. Instead, the song comes off as nothing more than an attempt to write a song that’s great for a live crowd to sing along to. When he sings, “I said hey, hey, hey/We’re all gonna die”, it doesn’t sound somber, accepting, or even darkly comic. It’s just there. There are a lot of ways one should respond to death in a song, but hollowly stating death as fact of life doesn’t seem the proper fashion to do so.
On some songs, it’s not even the overall sound that’s generic. At times, individual elements take directly from other artists. “Television” cops the memorable guitar riff from the Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition” (which itself is heavily indebted to The Edge), and “Release Me” sounds strangely like Foreigner in its piano/guitar interplay. “Restless Dream” could have been a B-side to any Dashboard Confessional album in the past decade. Throughout all of these moments it still sounds like McMahon has a distinct voice, but it’s so drowned out by the amalgamation of all things singer/songwriter pop that the album as a whole fails to rise above the individual moments that stand out as distinctly Jack’s Mannequin.
The people and things of People and Things are about as ordinary as they come. While the mundane nature of everyday life can be fertile for songwriting material, here the album sounds mundane in all the wrong ways. Andrew McMahon’s skill at singing from the piano is as plain as it was on Everything in Transit and Glass Passenger, but People and Things sounds like little progression has been made from then to now. You’ll sing along, but in the end you’ll find your craving for a catchy pop song sated by anything else that McMahon has already done.
// Notes from the Road
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