The 1996 non-fiction account of Christopher McCandless in John Krakauer’s Into the Wild struck a chord with audiences because it transcended just a simple journey into the wilderness. It struck at the meaning of one’s identity within a society and an existentialist search for the meaning in what is an otherwise nihilist world. McCandless tried to make his journey, with as few possessions as necessary, fearing that material culture had made each individual life devalued.
It is fitting then that Andrew McMahon, the songwriter behind some of the best pop-rock records put out and frontman of both Something Corporate and Jacks Mannequin, has taken the monitor of Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness for his debut solo full-length. McMahon seems to be seeking a form of enlightenment about his own life through his music, an enlightenment that he wasn’t able to attain in any of his previous works.
This seems like as good a time as ever to tell you that Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, the self-titled debut record I spoke of above, is a deeply affecting and personal account of a McMahon’s personal journey and the uncertain times which he has had to face in the past two years since retiring the Jacks Mannequin monicker and the even more ambivalent events that will come as he becomes a parent for the first time.
In fact, just he did in “Holiday from Real” the title track from his critically acclaimed record Everything In Transit, in which he discusses the looming sense of dread with his health crisis, he seems continuously focused on this record on the daunting task of settling down and becoming a parent. Just as the line “She thinks I’m much too thin / she asks me if I’m sick” is still effecting 9 years later, so too is the rousing chorus of “Cecilia and the Satellite,” in which he sings directly to his daughter, “Don’t be afraid Cecilia / I’m the satellite/ And you’re the sky.”
Now that we have established that lyrically Andrew McMahon is just as adept at writing songs for this new project as he was with his previous two, the question remains, how is the actual music?
And the answer is pretty complicated. Fans of the laid back California vibe of the last Something Corporate record North and the aforementioned Everything in Transit may be disappointed to find out that there is quite a bit going on in each of these songs. The production takes a step forward in a big way, with huge drum productions the rule, not the exception. None of the production work or electronics are overwhelming in any one song, but they are certainly
Maybe the only disappointment is that the simple, but incredibly effective guitar riffs from long time collaborator Bobby Anderson are notably absent from the record. But in their place, McMahon deftly places wonderfully layered synthesizer runs that take the guitar’s place admirably. This technique is particularly present in the aforementioned “Cecilia and the Satellite,” and “Halls,” a song that wouldn’t have been out of place at all on The Killers’ “Battle Born.” Then there are songs like “Rainy Girl,” which display his ability to wow audiences with just a piano and his voice. The sparse arrangement stands in stark contrast to the songs that surround it on Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, but the contrast is a positive, not a detraction. “Rainy Girl / the song is coming up for me / blackbird on a wire sings / a song so blue,” McMahon sings, effortlessly floating into a stunning falsetto.
Though McMahon is a remarkably talented singer songwriter, he is not perfect. Really the only song that doesn’t work at all is the plodding “See Her on the Weekend,” a song in which I am fairly convinced that McMahon simply had no clue how to construct the chorus so he just said the title of the song a few different ways and called it a day. The song is sandwiched between two of the best songs lyrically of his career, “All Our Lives” and “Black and White Movies”, so it makes the dichotomy even more pronounced.
“All Our Lives,” with it’s in-line rhymes and wonderful storytelling, is especially an accomplishment. The song tells the story of two different people who the narrator happens upon in his life. He receives a piece of advice from the first person (There’s only one mistake that I have made/ It’s giving up the music in my fingertips / By trying to get to Heaven through my veins”), and then imagines himself giving out a piece of advice to to the second (There’s only two mistakes that I have made / It’s running from the people who could love me best /And trying to fix a world that I can’t change.) It’s a masterful storytelling technique and one that directly relates back to the theme of finding meaning in one’s own life on the album.
Perhaps the best song to display McMahon’s commitment to going into the wilderness in search of meaning, however, is the closing track “Maps for the Getaway.” The song is McMahon’s way of looking back at his past with weary-eyed resilience, as he notes, “ The years of hope / the months of rain / now that we’re outside it / i guess we survived it after all.” It almost comes across as a eulogy to his past projects and the image of himself that was associated with that era. It’s a wistful and nostalgic eulogy though, and not an elegy. McMahon then turns his sights towards the future, and his search for purpose. “No cash in the bank, no paid holidays, all we have is gas in the tank, maps for the getaway, all we have is time,” McMahon sings as the album comes to a close.
Ultimately, time is what Andrew McMahon finds has gotten through his uncertain moments in the past, and ultimately it is the fact that he has time now that makes the future seems so promising. It’s a salient thought, and one that I believe makes Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness such a rewarding and impactful release for listeners. It is one of the best songwriters of a generation, reaching his most erudite peak- and it’s an absolute must listen.