An all-grown-up Andrew McMahon forgets the appeal in keeping parts of himself forever young.
Oh, and you thought Jack's Mannequin was a pop band.
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness's self-titled debut set is filled with everything you've come to expect from the pianist pop-rocker: Super serious subject matter. Introspective, longing stories about heartbreak or the weirdness of growing up. Sweetly crafted harmonies that ought to soundtrack whatever new movie Shailene Woodley is in. If the CW had a punk-rock child who, for whatever reason, thought Matt Nathanson was a poignant songwriter, that child would follow McMahon into whatever wilderness he brought forth, and that child would be smiling from ear gauge to ear gauge, no matter what lie ahead.
But how does it work as a grown-up pop album? "Well enough" would be the quick answer. McMahon is in his 30s now, a far cry from the Warped Tour treks Something Corporate afforded him, and even a decade away from his initial solo offering, 2005's Everything in Transit, which served as the infectious unveiling of his best project, Jack's Mannequin. Suffice to say, the cut-time beat that worked its way into "The Mixed Tape" isn't just a thing of the past at this point; it feels almost like another artist entirely.
Instead, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness is drenched with so much of 1980s soft rock, you sort of wonder when Eric Carmen is going stop by, looking to turn all the radios up. Aided by warm, heavy synths and a gaggle of steady electronic kick drums, this record sounds like an adult. From start to finish, it inevitably adds up to the process of what it's like to spend your teens worshipping the Clash... only to find yourself turning your minivan's radio to 11 each time the sounds of Bruce Hornsby noodle their way through the radio airwaves.
And that's not even music critic hyperbole. "Driving Through a Dream" and "Maps for the Getaway" could have easily found their ways onto The Way It Is or Harbor Lights. Driven by a simple electronic pop-drum beat, the former is flush with warm piano chords, acoustic or not. Even the oh-oh-oh's found at each post-chorus are far more Boy George than they are boy band. "Getaway", the set's closer, eases in with synths that would make the Killers' "The Way It Was" blush, all on top of Phil Collins No Jacket Required drums, updated for a Sia generation. It's a weirdly lazy goodbye, the song never really bubbling into the type of fully formed idea it seems like it wants to be.
In contrast is "See Her on the Weekend". Perhaps the record's most accessible moment, it's the Great Pop Ballad that everyone has been waiting for McMahon to write since "If U C Jordan" came into our collective consciousness. Snobs might dismiss it as cheesy radio rock, but they're missing the point: If these 10 songs are designed to announce the former Something Corporate leader as player among the Triple A or Adult Contemporary radio set, then "Weekend" overtly screams, "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!" He misses his girl. His cellphone's dead. A baby's on the way. He drinks more than those doctors say he should. It's sad rock for those too normal to feel happiness. There's simply no comprehensible reason this thing shouldn't land him on a tour with the Fray.
Elsewhere, the singer updates his formula to comply with the popular culture's cool-kids table, running that four-to-the-floor beat into the ground and naming a song something like "Canyon Moon". Complete with a clap-along pre-chorus, "Moon" will stick in your head for days if you let it. Throw in a broken down, nearly a cappella section that puts McMahon above his peers, and you have one of his strongest compositions to date. "High Dive" then kicks up the tempo and meshes his latest focus with his former life, vaguely calling upon a popular Bryan Adams hook along the way. It's the only time throughout each listen that you're reminded exactly of where Andrew McMahon came from in the first place.
Which, oddly, is equally refreshing and deterring. A song like "All Our Lives" is just far enough removed from Everything in Transit's "Bruised" that you know this guy is older, but you wonder how much edge he was willing to lose in order to achieve straight pop bliss. Ditto for "Cecilia and the Satellite" and "Halls", two songs that seem just a little too formulaic for comfort. Where Jack's may have taken a left turn, In the Wilderness stays straight. Where Leaving Through the Window might have pushed the gas pedal to the floor, this set seems fine enough riding at a steady 55 miles per hour. It's not ideal. But it's also not the worst thing you've ever heard.
And, really: Who can blame him for making an album like this? When you spend your formative years playing piano at punk rock shows, live through and subsequently beat cancer, and then embrace your pop tendencies for a project you put together in your 20s... well what happens at age 35? You start making the type of music your demographic covets.
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness does that admirably, despite its contextually ironic decision to ignore Rod Stewart in 1988, when on those very radio airwaves a record like this belongs, he advocated for staying, if nothing else, forever young.