learning love songs

est. 2008


Andrew McMahon


Life is busy, almost too busy sometimes, ratcheting up in responsibilities and squeezing out the spare time usually used to sit, reflect, read or just veg out. Fortunately, if you’re as much of a music fan as I am, the soundtrack to your goings-on can offer just enough of an emotional balm to keep you going until you catch your next breath (heck, sometimes it’s better than that and propels you even further).

Lately I’ve been into the newest Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness record, Zombies on Broadway, a buoyant and revealing pop-rock record that dropped a few weeks ago. I was a big Something Corporate I don’t think there was a mix CD in my possession without “Konstantine,” “I Kissed A Drunk Girl” or “I Woke Up In A Car” on it. The debut of Jack’s Mannequin thrilled me as much as anyone and I do think that record will hold up as a seminal classic for the early aughts.

But much of the post-JM solo work has come to me in fits and starts, I don’t think there was a release that I dove into from start to finish the way I have Zombies. The self-titled from 2014 has some great moments and I love love love “Cecelia and the Satellite” and “Maps for the Getaway” has become a theme song of sorts, but I came to it late, probably in 2015 or 2016.

Listening to Zombies, I hear a little bit of all that came before, from the stream-of-conscious spoken delivery in “Brooklyn You’re Killing Me” that feel very Leaving Through the Window, the dance beats of “Don’t Speak For Me (True)” from The Pop Underground era, the romantic anthem of “Love and Great Buildings” that has always been a strength of his. Thematically, Zombies wrestles with the hardships of balancing love, relationships, responsibilities and mental health, always with a hint of hope and optimism. McMahon appears to be able to offer a clinic on how to age and stay young at the same time.

It’s an incredibly tight and cohesive 11 tracks, full of McMahon’s sharp if mildly depressed observations. “Dead Man’s Dollar” darkly struggles with balancing responsibilities and personal strength,”Island Radio” is a stylistic take on a last ditch effort of sorts, and slow burn closer “Birthday Song” is call to one’s owns arms. So much of this album speaks to the strength and maturation one goes through in a life with myriad challenges, multiple mistakes and a massive emotional core. It’s one of the more honest, and catchy, records I’ve heard this year, and one I plan on revisiting time and time again.

“Pocket change and subway cars
Our big ideas filled empty bars
You might be from the moon or mars
Either way, I’m never going home

So, let’s hang an anchor from the sun
There’s a million city lights but
You’re number one
You’re the reason I’m still
Up at dawn
Just to see your face

We’ll be going strong
With the vampires, baby
We belong, we belong awake
Swinging from the fire escape”

~Fire Escape
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, Zombies on Broadway


“I saw this woman with tears in her eyes
Driving beside me yesterday.
She turned her head then I turned mine
And I watched her drive away.

I thought ‘If I could tell her something I would tell her this
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.’

All our lives
I watch you search beneath the falling skies
This was no path to glory
You always walk before me

But you came back to warn me
All our lives.”

~All Our Lives,
Andrew McMahon and the Wilderness, Andrew McMahon and the Wilderness

I’m more than a little late on the album from former Something Corporate/Jack’s Mannequin frontman Andrew McMahon, a record where he proves he is so much more than those bands and names that he has built his reputation on. For the sake of nostalgia, I don’t think I’ll love his newer work as much as I did his past records, but this is its own little shiny gem. It proves McMahon is the rare musician (in this age, anyway) who pursues his art regardless of expected structure, and worked his way onto the pop airwaves from the indie label on up.

I listened to it after hearing the “Cecelia and the Satellite ” single enough times on the radio. Almost every song has just as satisfying of a chorus, tons of piano and bells and little catchy melodies, and some very open-hearted lyrics, true to his form.It’s very clear-eyed and bright, even when in the midst of soul-searching in a less than perfect world. It’s not too happy, as introspection and mortality lurk around the edges, but sonically its sunny as hell without betraying his emo roots. I like how effortlessly it blends dance-pop, fist-bump beats with silky, soaring piano parts, like on “Black and White Movies,” there’s something both current and elegant about it.

I hope there’s critics who are smarter and savvier than me to parce through McMahon’s latest releases, his earliest recordings and channel what has happened in his not-easy life in parallel with what he has produced.  No doubt his illness, his relationships made him grow and change, thus thrusting his work in a new direction. But while many artists find the trials of life pull them away from their art and damage their potential reach and success (cause life is hard, even when it’s easy), McMahon did this wonderful thing where he *found* greater success through the journey. What an incredible story to tell, or to hear. 

“Are you home tonight?
Are you laying in bed watching black and white movies?
All alone tonight
Do you ever rewind to the summer you knew me?”

~Black and White Movies,  
Andrew McMahon and the Wilderness, Andrew McMahon and the Wilderness


Woke up the other day wanting to listen to Jack’s Mannequin. Went with it.

This is a really good album, definitely think we’ll be able to point this in decades to come as one that defines a time, a generation, a scene. I don’t know why I forgot about it relatively quickly after it was released (definitely was a SoCo fan throughout HS). I was certainly reminded of it often though, lots of Facebook status updates from pop culture know-it-alls and many a mention of a tour date at some big outdoor or college venue back upstate. They’ve never seem to have gone away, though I don’t think the follow-up LP made as much of a splash (honestly, I haven’t heard it).

Jack’s Mannequin following branched out from indie and pop punk scenes into something much more mainstream, opening a lot of doors for what we’re hearing now. This song in particular we may want to label as, perhaps, too cliche, but isn’t that the very thing that will be able to bring you right back? Something so entirely authentically *then* that you can be transported back there *now*? It’s not easy to capture that, and it’s even harder to do so with enough subtlety that people will buy it and feel cool with it. So, props to Andrew MacMahon, you can write a hell of a song, and the world took notice.

“I read your letter,
he one you left when you broke into my house
Retracing every step you made
And you said you meant it
And there’s a piece of me in every single
Second of every single day
But if it’s true then tell me how it got this way

Where are you now?
As I’m swimming through the stereo
I’m writing you a symphony of sound
Where are you now?
As I rearrange the songs again
This mix could burn a hole in anyone
But it was you I was thinking of”

~The Mixed Tape
Jack’s Mannequin, Everything in Transit


I keep a couple dozen old burned CDs in the center console in my Saturn. There’s plenty more where these came from in a big and dusty faux leather binder that I spent around $25 on back in the day – which felt like a lot. But when I got the Saturn this past fall, with the first car CD player I’d ever had, it was a chance to rediscover the CDs that used to spin in my Discman on a daily basis.

Some are mixes, some are albums. Some are labeled in Sharpie, some are decorated in swirls and stars and colors with little pictures accentuating words in album titles. Some are not labeled at all. They’re all a nice daily reminder of who I am, where I came from, what I stand for, etc. It’s also a nice way to spice up what I’m listening to on my drive in, as there’s always a surprise or two to be found.

So today I pull out a disc at random on my way to the grocery store and laundromat, and it’s Something Corporate, “Leaving Through the Window.” OK. I’ll take that. From the opening bars of “I Want to Save You” I’m suddenly a sophomore again, and all I want is some boy with shaggy hair and kind eyes and a killer CD collection to hold my hand and wear my hair ties and rubber pink bracelets on his wrist.

“She drives away, she’s feeling worthless 
Used again but nothing’s different 
She’d stay the night but knows he doesn’t care 

Home by three, a deafening quiet 
The porch light’s off guess they forgot it 
She’d cry herself to sleep, but she don’t dare” 
~I Want to Save You
Something Corporate, Leaving Through the Window

I keep listening as I go through my day and I remember how this album as a whole is still so, so good. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s driving. It’s part of the original class of pop punk that arrived at an early-decade apex right when the kids were really starting to pay attention and start screaming for more. But it’s never too angry, and there’s slower moments, hinting at the heartfelt sentiment Andrew McMahon would continue to shape on “North” and with Jack’s Mannequin. He talks about skin and limbs and veins and cars as was the way back then, but it’s never for surface value, it’s just the poetry of it. Combine the lyrics with piano-driven melodies and key-change choruses, and you make an album that was as classic than as it is today.

Ask almost anyone who graduated high school between 2004 and 2007. They’ll tell ya.

One song, “The Astronaut,” was never a favorite in high school, but today it made more sense. That chorus kicked in and I kept driving, silent, onto my destination. Today it felt inspiring. Today it reminded me that if you’re going to worry about any road, it should be the one before you, and what you saw on the way there is right where it needs to be, namely behind you, but also in memory.

“i’ve been sleeping with ghosts 
i’ve been watching stars 
crawling out of the sky 
and i’ve been hoping 
i’m close to the space man movies 
i call my life 

and i’ve been climbing ladders through time 
i’ve got tunnel vision 
but i’m doing fine 
and i’ve been 
watching stars coming off of the wall 
and maybe if i’m lucky i can catch them 
before you fall 
and you are not alone 

calling out to the astronaut 
i need some of what you’ve got 
i need to be high 
crawling out of the world she brought 
calling out to the astronaut 
i need to be high”
Something Corporate, Leaving Through the Window

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