Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"The restless dream we left behind."

 Jack's Mannequin - People And Things
Sire Records, 2011
Four stars

The last time Andrew McMahon released a record, it was the first new music he'd made since he'd been diagnosed with leukemia (and beaten it). That record, called The Glass Passenger and released in 2008, was his statement: an emotional, powerful set of songs from a guy who'd gotten a new lease on life, and I loved it from my first listen. As the years have gone on, I've recognized a few things I would change about that record: it's inconsistent, both in quality and mood, and the slew of b-sides from those sessions, released on a series of EPs (The Ghost Overground, In Valleys and Dear Jack) suggested that McMahon had a much better record on his hands than the one he released. McMahon took a lot of chances on that record though, writing songs that were completely different from everything he'd ever released, ranging from an ambitious symphony of a pop song ("Caves"), edgier rock than he'd written since the early Something Corporate days ("Bloodshot"), or a clever twist on his usual piano balladry ("Orphans"). Sometimes though, the risks didn't pay off, like on the big rock song "Suicide Blonde," which should have been left as a b-side, or the amalgamation of songs that was "American Love" (McMahon wrote that song by combining a bunch of different leftover lyrics that never fit into other songs), which remains my least favorite McMahon song released to date. Both of those tracks should have been left off in favor of some of that album's b-sides, like the infectious "Doris Day" (which would have been one of the three or four best tracks on that record), the acoustic "At Full Speed," or any of the tracks from the Dear Jack EP, all of which dealt with Andrew's cancer directly. With a few key track exchanges, The Glass Passenger could have been one of my favorite albums of all time. As is, it's still a very good album with a handful of the best tracks McMahon has ever written; a flawed near-masterpiece that was more than a worthy follow-up to Everything in Transit, which remains a top five all time album for me.

Jack's Mannequin's third record, entitled People And Things, dropped last week, and has been one of my most anticipated records for this entire year. Lead single "My Racing Thoughts," an extremely catchy pop song that finds a middle ground between the slick power pop of Transit and the more folk inspired sound of Passenger, only boosted my expectations. For the most part, People And Things is a contrast to The Glass Passenger in that it is a very safe album. It's sound generally plays things very close to where he was musically on the last record's more straightforward cuts, delivering quick, snappy pop songs (no track on the album cross the 4.5 minute mark) or folky, roots-rock tinged numbers (McMahon clearly spent a fair amount of time with his Tom Petty records while making this album). Gone is the adventurous spirit of The Glass Passenger, and while that arguably makes for a more cohesive and consistent record, it also makes for a decidedly less involving one. There are no climactic two-part songs on this record, no really striking or chilling moments, which McMahon seemed to deliver on half the tracks on Passenger (how could he not, given the circumstances?), but the hooks also lack the same infectious quality that the songs on Transit had. That album had at least half a dozen perfect pop choruses, hooks that latched themselves onto your brain after a single listen. While this record tries to find middle ground between Andrew's last two records, and does so admirably, it also ends up being undoubtedly the weakest of the three.

The weird thing is, that doesn't even disappoint me. Andrew has never released a record I didn't love, and this one is no exception to that rule. Straight out of the gate, it delivers four killer songs. The extremely catchy "Racing Thoughts" is the lead-off, and is right in line with the way McMahon has opened each of his albums: anthemic tracks that promise great things to come. "Release Me" is a glorious pop-rocker, while "Television" is a gorgeous, slightly more subdued moment, but has a kind of epic sweep to it that is nothing short of addicting. Pre-release track "Amy, I" sounded better in it's live setting than it does on record, and it's big hook might actually be it's weak point next to the verses, but it's still a solid pop song. "Hey, Hey, Hey (We're All Gonna Die)" and "Platform Fire" were both written around the time of The Glass Passenger's release, and live videos of both have been floating around the internet for several years now. The latter is a big Something Corporate-esque pop song (think North) that falls just short of great, while "Hey, Hey, Hey" sounds so much like a Passenger b-side (that album's title actually comes from the verses) that it's presence on this album ends up feeling a bit jarring. It's the weakest track here, in my opinion, but many will love it's big, shout along chorus, and the verses are gorgeous, both musically and lyrically.

With "People, Running," the album transitions to it's second, stronger half. The song is one of the album's finest, a mid-tempo rocker with a bright hook and fantastic lyrics that could have fit on Everything in Transit. Album highlight "Amelia Jean" is a gorgeous piano driven number that showcases Andrew's folk/Americana influence on this album, and sports one of the album's most instantly memorable and highest soaring choruses, drawing a great vocal from McMahon: this is the kind of song that made me fall in love with Andrew's music in the first place. "Hostage" is just as good, and is one of the biggest and purest pop songs Andrew has ever recorded. He gives one of his best vocal performances to date on this song, belting out the pitch perfect chorus with gorgeous tone. His voice on these past two records has changed notably from the higher, brighter tone he employed on Everything in Transit, and whether that has to do with production, the songwriters he's emulating or actual vocal changes is hard to gauge, but it draws a clear dividing line between these past two records and the first. While I miss the more power pop driven sound, it's hard to fault his vocals on this record, especially on songs as good as "Hostage" or "Restless Dream," an acoustic guitar driven song that qualifies as the album's only true ballad. Singer/songwriter Brandi Carlisle adds a nice dimension with her light, sensitive backing vocals, accenting the song's thoughtful lyrics (some of Andrew's best), while the cello accompaniment near the end is exquisite. 

The climactic "Casting Lines" ends the album on a hopeful note, but is over far too soon for my taste, as it's one of the album's three or four strongest compositions. That, however, is my main complaint with People And Things: it's just a hair safer and a hair shorter than it should be. The handful of b-sides that Andrew released on the iTunes deluxe edition reveal that this brevity was in no way due to a lack of solid material, as any of those four tracks could have easily found a place on this album. The Something Corporate-esque piano ballad, "No Man Is An Island," would have been especially welcome, as this album's lack of a signature Andrew McMahon piano ballad is one of it's biggest weaknesses. This is, after all, the guy who wrote such classics as "Konstantine," "Cavanaugh Park" and "Rescued," so the lack of another possible addition to that pantheon of greats is disappointing. Other than that though, it's hard to fault People And Things for much: it's a great pop album with a bit of a folk/rock flavor, and the fact that it falls a little bit short of McMahon's previous work is still no reason for me to not completely love it. I'm just hoping that next time out, McMahon takes a few more risks: I think he still has another classic in him, and I'm willing to wait around for awhile to hear it.

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