May 1, 2013

Test Spins: Andrew McMahon, The Pop Underground

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Remember when Andy McMahon loved the Beach Boys? Sigh. Me, too.

In the year since McMahon shed the title of Jack’s Mannequin, he has recorded music for the positively nauseating NBC show Smash, Instagrammed a full catalogue of dramatic doorway, bridge and escalator photos, introduced a website featuring a “Words” section (largely prose about Los Angeles as metaphor. And metaphor. And metaphor.) and bopped around from Alternative Press to The Huffington Post giving interviews about how he is so-very-ready for people to stop associating him with leukemia. It hardly seems a coincidence that this gear-shifting E.P. is titled The Pop Underground, whereasthe first E.P. he released in remission in 2008 was titled The Ghost Overground. (That’s “gear-shift” as metaphor.)  The SoCo spiked-locks are gone, and so is the J.M. eyebrow piercing — today’s Andrew McMahon is clean cut in cardigans and a bottled blonde combover á la … Betty Draper? Is that an unironic mustache? Do those still exist?

The quality of his first solo E.P. seemed like less than a guarantee, but as a girl who once angstily considered Andy McMahon the great love story of her adolescence, I was hopeful.

The Pop Underground, released a mere eighteen months after Jack’s Mannequin’s final record People and Things, opens with the track “Synesthesia,” a catchy, upbeat history of  his career thus far and somewhat of a comfort for his fans’ qualms. “I see colors when I hear your voice,” is the explanation of that not-quite-rolling-off-the-tongue title, and despite the decidedly techno departure from J.M.’s mostly natural sound, the chorus is as catchy and charming as Jack’s Mannequin fans would expect. Finally, a chance to put your dancy pants on with Andy, and it’s not an unwelcome shift. But “Synesthesia” is clearly the standout track.

The rest of the E.P. represents a logical transition for an artist almost fifteen years out from the debut album he recorded with his high school band, Something Corporate. Where Jack’s Mannequin’s Everything in Transit was a break-up album, The Glass Passenger was a recovery album, and  People and Things was the renaissance album about moving on from crisis and settling back into daily life and struggles on a micro-level, The Pop Underground takes an expansive view of past and future. “Learn to Dance” contains lyrics about McMahon’s “unborn children” and in “Catching Cold” he sings, “baby girl you gave the blood that saved me,” which is almost certainly a gesture to his sister Katie. “After the Fire,” the final track of the EP has an awkward synth-driven chorus, but the verses are classic McMahon. The lyrics, “We were dancing with the ashes falling, we were singing by the open flame” contradict the fun and upbeat track — they’re about forgetting and burning things down and could certainly serve as a manifesto for the extent to which McMahon plans to leave Jack’s Mannequin and its associations in the dust. An a cappella fade-out puts a clean ending on this four-track tribute to family, friends, bandmates and fans. “Tomorrow is another day,” says Andrew (Scarlett O’Hara?) to sum up his transition.

Except for that the chorus of the song two tracks prior says that “There’s no tomorrow.”

Anyway, thematically the evolution is great, but aesthetically, I think I might just smell a sell-out. There’s a sense that McMahon is ready for his piece of the pie—maybe not in monetary terms, but certainly in recognition. After all, he is getting into his 30’s and is ready to be taken at least as seriously as his good buddy Tommy Lee. “I never made a gold record and I’ve never been to Mars,” McMahon sings in “Synesthesia,” a line that seems to nod at unrealized dreams. McMahon recorded a  plethora of songs under both Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin that referred to his abandoned childhood dream of being an astronaut. As far as that “gold record” he never made, Jack’s Mannequin was a piano-rock and pop combo with an alternative fan base and a sound that never catered much to radio play. This E.P. features McMahon’s most generous mainstream-pop leaning yet, with heavy-handed auto-tuning and synthetic beats, and it’s already near the top of the iTunes chart. Is Andrew McMahon trying to become the next mainstream pop sensation?

I don’t want to say that it’s definitely what he was going for. I have a lot of respect for someone who would empty their bank account at age 22 to produce a record on their own terms. And I basically love how he jumped down the Alternative Press interviewer’s throat to tell him that he was not going to fucking use KickStarter to put out an album, thank you very much Amanda Palmer. At the same time, McMahon doesn’t need auto-tune and I’m not sure why he’s using it. There’s a palpable regression, particularly in “Catching Cold,” to the sometimes-whiny, melodramatic adolescence of Something Corporate, a band which was, in hindsight, as of-the-early-2000’s as anything else. Jack’s Mannequin didn’t accrue nearly the aspirational adolescent fan-base as SoCo, and though J.M. fans are fiercely loyal, they were never the sort to hold clout in garnering critical acclaim.

McMahon is obviously conscious of this in “Synesthesia” — “My friends are in the news, collecting trophies for the songs they wrote.” Yikes. He’s never had a Top 40 hit or nabbed a Grammy, and he’s mostly seemed okay with it, even celebratory of it … until now. The intro to “Learn to Dance” has a female backup voice that legitimately sounds as if it was pulled from the bubblegum mess that was Hillary Duff’s musical career and the first few bars of “Catching Cold” sound like Owl City post-Carly Rae Jepsen disaster.

“We are a scrappy tribe and we stand for something,” McMahon said of his fans in an article for The Huffington Post. This E.P., however, takes some contradictory stances on what exactly that might be. There’s emotional maturity to respect in the lyrics, but there’s also some pandering to the synthetic-pop-lauding-masses. I definitely preferred McMahon when he was “underground” and happy to be there.

Original Author: Kaitlyn Tiffany