Review Summary: Successfully fusing some of his previous works' more poppish tendencies with electronics, Andrew McMahon's debut solo EP is generally a success.
When Andrew McMahon meets fans after concerts, he's often surrounded by not-quite-teenage girls, almost always echoing the same sentiment: "your music saved my life." It's a heavy claim, but considering the subject matter of his songs and the earnest positivity his survival of his brush with death imparted on him, it's hardly surprising. McMahon's previous bands, Something Corporate
and Jack's Mannequin
were well-loved and still find new listeners all the time, drawn in by the sincerity and emotional depth under the facade of cheery pop-punk. McMahon, flattered and empowered by the emotional attachment formed between listeners and his music, has been given new artistic energy, increasing his touring and offstage media presence. He has also developed himself further as a pop artist first and foremost - no over-driven guitars to be found here. The changes have not alienated his fanbase, which he has recognized by dubbing them "The Pop Underground". This name represents that antithesis of an underground pop band with a devoted fanbase, and the spreading of music not by sales numbers but virally through word of mouth. Those fans will not be disappointed by his first solo project, a four-track EP essentially named after them.
While instrumentally the music may differ from what we're used to (piano, guitars, and impossibly high yet barely ever falsetto vocals), stylistically McMahon makes it clear that he has, at the core, been playing the type of music he loves for the past fifteen years. This new solo outfit doesn't liberate him from the bonds of Jack's Mannequin
, which, considering the difference between 2005's Everything in Transit
and 2011's Everything in Transit
, were loose to begin with, but rather to add new elements to his music and give him new malleability with genres. Fans will recognize hints of old songs on this EP, but it's not a retread by any means. The presence of synths and a few drum machine beats is new, but with the tendency toward "summer music" of his previous work, they're a natural fit.
"Synesthesia" is the first track, and it's well-chosen. Similar to "Television" from the 2011 effort (and transitively similar to "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"), it nevertheless has its own voice and an extremely catchy and uplifting chorus. In a better world this would be a hit single, as while it still holds the emotional depth of his past work - barely anything rings false out of his voice - it holds a strong pop appeal and fulfills the criteria of "summer song". It may sound a bit like a crowd-pleaser, as it's so unabashedly poppy and easy to sing along to, but if you're generally a fan of McMahon's work that shouldn't be a problem. "Catching a Cold" is far more electro-driven, and doesn't quite sound like anything we've heard before from McMahon, although it's still distinctly recognizable. Of the four it's the most interesting and least outwardly poppy.
"Learn to Dance" is a decent electronic track, although it's not helped by an unfortunately uncatchy refrain of "You can learn to dance, you can learn to dance, you can learn to dance like there's no tomorrow" which is delivered with such emphasis that it's a bit difficult to seriously sing along to. The verse lyrics harken back a bit to McMahon's old projects, evoking the California of his teens, which may add a nostalgic boost to the track depending on the listener. Much more successful is the abundantly bright "After the Fire", packed to the brim with lush synths with a steady and upbeat drum and bass part driving the danceable and appealingly tropical tune.
This EP is a nice little pack of summery electronic songs, which on a four-track record is about as much as we could expect. The depth of "Bruised" and "The Resolution" isn't quite there yet, and the cohesion is mostly based on instrumental consistency rather than an engrained theme, but to expect that would be unreasonable. For those who miss Jack's Mannequin, this is different, but the song-writing is still excellent and familiar.