Review Summary: The sixth stage of (Andrew Mc)Mahon
In his play As You Like It, Shakespeare outlined the theory of the Seven Ages of Man in the famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue. Jaques, the orator, outlines man’s progression through life: from birth, through adolescence, romanticism and cynicism, all the way to death. What’s keen about the arc of Andrew McMahon’s career is we’ve seen him perform since his adolescence- his time as the ‘lover’ while fronting Something Corporate, being ‘the soldier’ who worked himself so thin he almost didn’t notice his leukemia in the more piano-oriented band Jack’s Mannequin and now, at the ripe age of 30, performing under his own name for the first time in three iterations, his career has entered ‘Old Age,’ when man begins to falter.
By no means is McMahon running out of ideas, he actually retains most of his best characteristics as a pianist and a lyricist; the issues with The Pop Underground actually stem from what he has decided incorporate. Most notable are the electronic pulses that bubble to the surface on the chorus of “Synesthesia” and climax in the strange dubstep-like effects on “After the Fire.” The artificial backing is very pedestrian: not powerful enough to support on its own, too powerful to be a supplementary addition, never particularly interesting. Worst of all is the dubstep, which sounds out-of-touch, like a father who knows Skrillex from TV commercials, and only included to capitalize on the flavor of the month. Dabbling in production seems to be McMahon’s main objective on this EP, there would have been no reason to stop performing under the Jack’s Mannequin name if it wasn’t, and he still has a lot to learn.
His attitude, similarly, has been torqued since the last Jack’s Mannequin release. While occasionally bitter, and understandably so, in the past, McMahon has never been as openly frustrated as on lead single “Synesthesia.” Inspired by the success of his friends and former tourmates fun. (who opened his tour in 2010 and supplanted him as the headliner in 2012), he reflects on never “[writing] a gold record” and writing songs “in the shadow of the moon.” The elements of kinship and shared success by the hidden but apparent thread of McMahon projecting himself in their place: winning Grammy’s, having enough money to help his father financially, living outside of the shadows. After listening to “Synesthesia,” The Pop Underground is revealed as a sentiment of defeat- it’s pop music, but people probably aren’t going to listen.
The upside to the EP is, of course, McMahon’s incredible performance ability. His voice is as vibrant as ever while soaring over the synth beats and the now auxiliary piano chords, coaxing us into believing his latest reinvention can be a success. The choruses are more vital than ever, verse writing has been minimized to make room for the layers of electronics which, more often than not, are kept hidden until the hook comes in. In this way, the sounds mimic the words- McMahon wants you to remember the pulses as much as the words. It works, but the question is whether or not these sounds are worth remembering; it’s certainly not worth overlooking the lyrics to get them lodged in your head.
On this little sampler, around 15 minutes long, we see a performer, and a person, at a crossroads. 30 is by no means elderly, but McMahon very well may be crossing into that all-important sixth age, the one condemning you to a slow descent into irrelevance. McMahon himself argues he was never relevant to begin with and now he has other things on his mind. No longer can he yell “*** you Jordan” to an unappealing classmate, he has a wife, a charity and a side gig writing for ‘Smash;’ plans for children are acknowledged on “Learn to Dance.” His mind is no longer a whirling dervish of introspection; it’s more interested in creating different styles of music and his personal life. The Pop Underground is not so much a steep descent into Old Age as it is a small step, an act of phasing himself out of the scene.
Then again, I don’t think his mind wants him to give up. There’s still fire inside Andrew McMahon, a fire that wants you to learn to dance, that wants the whole world to hear his music and delight in the product of a new-age raconteur who specializes in making his music inaccessible through its dense metaphors and unmanly aura. Those acquainted with The Bard may have noticed one of the stages of man was skipped in the intro: the justice, a stage of life where man gains social status and can begin to reap the fruits of his labor. McMahon has overcome adversity before and has the internal flame flickering desperately, hoping he may become the justice he deserves. If he can refine the elements weighing down The Pop Underground, there’s no reason he can’t achieve his goals. As it stands, though, McMahon may be destined to a life of relative obscurity.