Saturday, March 26, 2016
Jack's Mannequin - Everything in Transit (10-Year Retrospective)
By the time I was playing Everything in Transit on that road trip five years ago, I'd already heard it hundreds of times. It was (and still is) my go-to fourth favorite album of all time, after Springsteen's Born to Run, Butch Walker's Letters, and Jimmy Eat World's Futures. Yet somehow, even though I already had so many memories and emotions wrapped up in those songs, that three-hour drive home ended up being my definitive listen to Everything in Transit, if only for how prophetic it was. Driving home, with the windows down and the sunroof open, the 75-degree air whipping through my hair, and the sun-soaked sounds of songs like "I'm Ready," "La La Lie," and "MFEO" filling the car, I somehow knew that this summer was going to be special. And it was: over the next four months, I would start a relationship with a girl I'd had a crush on for ages. By the time I left home at the end of the season, I was in love with her. Fast forward to today, and she's sitting next to me on the couch, in a house we own together, with the ring I bought her on her finger and a gold wedding band on mine. Suffice to say that summer 2010 wasn't just the perfect summer: it was the most important four months of my life, and on that unseasonably warm day in late April, Andrew McMahon and his five-year-old piano-pop songs seemed to know what was in store even before I did.
Looking back at all the memories I've shared with this record, it's difficult to believe that it's already 10 years old. Written as a concept album about a whirlwind summer spent in California, Everything in Transit arrived on August 23rd, 2005. Coincidentally or not, that date was just two days shy of the 30th anniversary of Born to Run, and McMahon's first album under the Jack's Mannequin moniker actually has quite a lot in common with Springsteen's foremost masterpiece. Sonically, there are numerous albums from around the same time that sound more like Born to Run—The Hold Steady's Boys & Girls in America and The Killers' Sam's Town both arrived in 2006, and The Gaslight Anthem's The '59 Sound was just three years away. But none of those albums capture the visceral feel of Born to Run—of being young and full of life, with limitless possibilities waiting just a few miles down the highway—quite like this one.
Everything in Transit was also a big personal gamble for McMahon, just as Born to Run had been for Springsteen. The legend is that Jon Landau, Born to Run's producer, had to hide the studio bills from Columbia to avoid giving all of the higher-ups at the record label strokes over the cost. McMahon, meanwhile, believed so thoroughly in his vision for this album that he reportedly spend $40,000 of his own personal savings to bring it to fruition. (It's unclear how much of that money went toward hiring Motley Crue's Tommy Lee to record the drums.) Unfortunately, McMahon didn't get to enjoy the release as he would have hoped: on the day that mastering was completed for Everything in Transit, McMahon was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He began chemotherapy immediately, which meant canceling tours and ending the promotional cycle for the album before it had even really started. Still, McMahon wanted to release the record as scheduled, on August 23rd, and his label remarkably went along with his wishes.
The decision to release Everything in Transit at a time when he couldn't really promote it and couldn't tour could very well have been career suicide for McMahon—though, it wasn't like he didn't have more important things to worry about at the time. Suddenly, his personal gamble looked like it was in danger of going against him. But the record sold well in spite of everything, and by the time McMahon had gotten back on his feet, his story—and the album that had nearly been his swansong—were already the stuff of scene legend. A decade, two Jack's Mannequin records, one album as Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, and one solo EP later, Everything in Transit is still regarded as Andrew McMahon's seminal work, and as one of the greatest albums of the new millennium by the users of this very website.
I was personally late to the party on this record. Though it dropped in August 2005, I don't think Everything in Transit really landed on my radar until January or February 2006. I remember hearing gems like "The Mixed Tape" and "Dark Blue" as soundtrack songs on one or two TV shows and being impressed, and I remember digging up a few other tracks and downloading them from various Myspace music profiles (blast from the past, right there), but it wasn't until May or June that I bit the bullet and bought a used copy of the CD off Amazon for three or four bucks. Looking back, that was some of the best money I ever spent.
Part of the issue was that I had no idea who Andrew McMahon even was until late 2005. I was familiar with a number of artists in this scene—I'd obviously had a huge genesis moment with Jimmy Eat World in the fall of 2004—but Something Corporate evaded me until my brother came home for the holidays with a copy of North in hand. I liked that record so much—particularly the atmospheric piano loop opening of "As You Sleep"—that I picked up Leaving Through The Window for myself, and I played those albums on repeat through the winter and spring of my freshman year of high school. For whatever reason, though, I held off on Everything in Transit until the weather warmed up. What a serendipitous decision that was.
Where most of Something Corporate's music is chilly, moody, and sad, Everything in Transit is almost the complete opposite. Shedding any emo influence he may have had in the SoCo days, Andrew turned to classic power pop here, and the result was a warm, upbeat, and celebratory record full of sunny piano chords and huge sing-along hooks. When my CD finally arrived in the mail, I think I had just gotten out of school for the summer, and this record was just waiting to be the soundtrack to the new season. From the carefree slacker vibes of "Holiday from Real," to the huge feeling of badass-ery I got whenever I listened to that spoken word section on "I'm Ready," I quickly internalized every moment of this record and made it my world.
Looking back now, I can tie moments of every single summer since to these songs. Uptempo jams like "La La Lie" and "Bruised" encapsulated my last days of youth and pure innocence in the summers of 2006 and 2007, when I still didn't have a car or a job, and was free to do pretty much whatever the hell I wanted between sunrise and sunset every day. Later, as I grew older, I tied heavier emotions into these songs, like "Rescued," the record's one true piano ballad. Probably Everything in Transit's most sterling moment, "Rescued" was a classic end-of-summer song, and I personally tended to relate it to the bittersweet melancholy of watching my siblings (and later, my older friends) head off to college as the hazy heat of August gave way to the colder air of September.
I suppose that sense of sadness was appropriate: to me, Everything in Transit always played like the chronicle of a summer fling, one which begins with giddy excitement and romance on "The Mixed Tape," but seems to stutter to a reluctant conclusion by the end of "Rescued." "There this was, hiding at the bottom of your swimming pool, some September," Andrew sings on the verse, before asking "Don't you think I wish that I could stay?" Some relationships simply aren't meant to outlast the warmer weather, and as I grew older and the end of summer became increasingly about saying goodbye and moving on to the next chapter—first temporarily, and then eventually for good—the connection I had with "Rescued" and this record as a whole only deepened.
More than perhaps any album in my collection, Everything in Transit elicits a cocktail of different emotions. On one side, it's as thrilling and euphoric as "Thunder Road." Suffice to say that my first college summer was not the only one whose arrival was heralded by this record. Every year, when the weather warms up and winter finally disappears, I make a point of taking this album for a drive and singing along at full blast. In the early days, that tradition was almost like a ritualistic effort to try to summon summer a little bit earlier than usual. As the end of a school year got closer and closer, I would bring this record back into regular rotation, both as a walk down memory lane to summers past, and as hopeful anticipation for what another summer might bring. "My life has become a boring pop song and everybody is singing along." That line was like my battle cry: as spring crept on, life would be starting to become stagnant and monotonous again, and getting out of school and back into a season full of long nights, parties, and loud music just seemed like the only solution.
Nowadays, things are different when I listen to this record. I'll always remember those carefree summers and how much they meant to me, but they just don't apply to me anymore. I grew up and moved away, and all too many of the friends I had in those days fell out of touch. Somewhere along the road, between that hopeful drive home in April 2010 and today, my youth evaporated, leaving only memories in its place. But when I listen to Everything in Transit, I can still feel the electricity; the hope of a thousand summer evenings and all the possibility they might hold; the chance that, one of these nights, it's just going to be me and you, and the whole town is going to be underwater, and there will be nothing we can do except to turn up the stereo, shout that chorus at the top of our lungs one last time, and live like there really might not be a tomorrow. Because sure, I may be getting older. But the feeling this album inspires in the pit of my stomach, that invincible anything-can-happen feeling? That's something that is going to keep me young for a long time—even when, inevitably, I'm not anymore.