Review Summary: His best since Everything In Transit.
It’s been a while since Andrew McMahon has sounded totally revitalized. Diagnosed with leukemia on the same day that he finished recording Jack’s Mannequin’s smash debut Everything In Transit
, he was eventually able to make a full recovery courtesy of a stem cell transplant from his sister. His musical career took some winding turns along the way, from the cancer-themed The Glass Passenger
to his latest musical venture, Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness. It wasn’t always a pretty ride, as People and Things
offered very little memorable material while the eponymous Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness
ran out of steam quickly despite possessing a handful of shimmering melodic highlights (most notably “Cecilia and the Satellite”). Enter Zombies on Broadway
, recorded in New York City where McMahon initially received that dreadful diagnosis over a decade ago. It’s an album full of introspection, but more importantly it is also the solution to the aforementioned period of stagnation. Zombies
is the first album since Everything In Transit
that simply explodes with life and energy; whether it’s the enormous pop hooks, the dynamically interwoven verses, or the optimistic lyrics. Even though it is formulaic in premise, it’s a damn good pop record that deservedly places Andrew McMahon’s musical career back in the spotlight while allowing his battles with cancer – or the Zombies on Broadway
– to fade quietly into the rearview mirror.
Ironically, it took McMahon returning to the scene of one of the most difficult moments of his life for him to finally turn the corner. There’s no way of knowing exactly what compelled him to do this, but regardless, Zombies
is the most fulfilling and vital music he has created in a very long time. From the very moment that ‘Brooklyn, You’re Killing Me’ sets in, it’s already apparent. “Okay, alright, just let me think” he spews rather urgently, as if he’s on the precipice of the most important decision of his life, and it’s almost reminiscent of his spiel during Everything In Transit
’s ‘I’m Ready.’ It quickly launches into a chorus so huge that it dwarfs old favorites like ‘Dark Blue’ and ‘Holiday From Real’, featuring an irresistible interchange between the song’s title and sugary la la la
’s set to a melody that sounds like it was meant for jam-packed stadiums. It’s an absolutely gleeful way to begin the record, but unlike what ‘Cecilia and the Satellite’ did for Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness’ debut, it’s far from the lone highlight. ‘Don’t Speak for Me’ marks one of Andrew’s most moving songs since ‘Swim’, with passages like “honestly, every day I feel a little bit stronger than I was” and “don't wanna play those songs again, until I've found someone to play them for.” It sets up for a knockout punch of a chorus, and even though it doesn’t quite deliver to the fullest extent, the verses alone are memorable enough to carry the track as one of the album’s very best. It actually seems to be a common theme across Zombies on Broadway
that the verses overpower the choruses, which generally tend to be overdubbed vocally and in certain cases also overproduced. At the same time though, this is a pop album through and through; so findings like this should not be particularly surprising. Most dedicated fans are already well-versed on ‘Fire Escape’ – the album’s lead single – and it’s just another incredibly well-crafted song with a melody that sticks like gum, strategically placed in the middle of the tracklist to help ensure that Zombies
never runs low on adrenaline. Combined, these generally mark the highlights and most likely singles, although just about every track here (excluding the thirty second intro) is a worthy entry capable of standing on its own.
features a plethora of sugary sweet verses ripe for the picking, the most rewarding moments come when Andrew McMahon wears his emotions on his sleeves – particularly when it comes to the trials of maturing and balancing musical stardom with family life. Having a daughter seems to have really changed Andrew’s outlook on life, which is both understandable and reflected lyrically throughout the record. It’s most obvious on ‘Dead Man’s Dollar’, in which he laments the challenges of leaving his wife and daughter alone while on the road: “I know this isn't easy, you got that baby sleeping all by yourself / feels like I'm always leaving / I swear to God, one day I'll be there to help.” The chorus is also a resounding repetition of “I want to make a life for you”, a line most likely dedicated to the future of his daughter, and a note that he ends with “I want to make a life, but I want to live there too.” The closing track ‘Birthday Song’ is another beautiful tribute, in which McMahon counts his blessings while seemingly drawing regret from his continued absence at home. Lines like “you married a good girl / she gave you this beautiful yellow-haired daughter” and “you can play all the notes, you can write all the words / you headlined in all the big cities / but when the spotlights are off and the crowds have gone home / …you could be going home too” are particularly moving, and even go as far as to open up questions about whether or not McMahon is considering hanging up the mic. It’s pure speculation of course, but the regret in these songs is so tangible that it seems to beckon the possibility. It certainly doesn’t do anything to extinguish these thoughts when he forlornly sings passages like “it's not your birthday…so blow out your candles, it's better than letting them burn out” and “I can't spend another night alone / I tried swimming but I can't get home…last transmission from the island radio.” At best, he just has a horrible case of homesickness, but regardless of what the future holds for Andrew McMahon’s musical career, his use of Zombies on Broadway
as a cathartic vessel for dealing with these feelings of conflict is one of the best things that happened to the album’s sense of depth and emotional relevancy.
One could be forgiven for approaching Zombies on Broadway
with slightly deflated expectations…I know I did. It would have been reasonable to assume that McMahon’s heyday ended with the seagulls and crashing waves of Everything In Transit
, and that Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness would never amount to much more than a failed attempt to recapture the initial promise of Jack’s Mannequin, or even the former glory of Something Corporate. Thankfully Zombies
proves all of that wrong, as McMahon shows that he still has as firm of a grasp as ever on his unique brand of piano pop-rock, or whatever you’d want to classify it as. This album – while straightforward from a songwriting perspective – is just a collection of powerhouse pop tunes, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that when it’s executed to perfection like it is here. From his early success as a teen rock star in Something Corporate, throughout the tribulations of dealing with cancer, through Jack’s Mannequin, and all the way up to his present musical project and life as a father, Andrew McMahon has proven that he is one of the most resilient songwriters of our time. Or, as he coins it in ‘Love and Great Buildings’: “through the great depressions, yeah, the best things are designed to stand the test of time.”