In terms of how he’s gone about moving through different musical avenues throughout his career, Andrew McMahon deserves a lot of credit. It would’ve been all to easy to string the Something Corporate name along with him down the line for some guaranteed leverage, but whereas that’s proved extremely detrimental for some bands (hi, Fall Out Boy), he’s instead gone down the smarter route, evolving into new projects as the sound has been reshaped. And with the eras of Something Corporate’s super-melodic emo and Jack’s Mannequin’s piano-pop now behind him, the moniker of Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness comes to categorise his leanings towards modern pop. The process may be good, however, but the music itself hasn’t been nearly as successful, defaulting to stale, unfortunate clichés that have done nothing to emphasise a musician with genuine talent and emotional presence. And given the monopoly that Imagine Dragons have on even the vaguest definitions of “alternative” music, that’s hardly likely to change any time soon.
Really though, comparing Flowers Upside Down to Imagine Dragons-esque alternative music is more of a false equivalence than it might initially let on, mostly because McMahon has specifically made a pop album that skirts around so much of that scene, and owes more to the wistful, piano-driven indie-pop of the 2000s that turns out to be a much better fit for him. What’s more, this isn’t a total whitewashing of his musical past, instead using all of it as the building blocks for something that might be sleeker and cleaner, but also a lot more mature and well-rounded, even compared to his other solo material. There’s perhaps a bit more that can be done for it to be truly great, but for what it is, Flowers Upside Down is a lot more interesting and likable than originally expected.
It might be a bit of hard sell though, especially given how much of this album is rooted in nostalgic connections that are always a safe go-to for indie-pop. It takes something pretty special to get anything significant from something like this – see The Menzingers’ After The Party, for instance – but while McMahon never even comes close to nuanced exploration of that calibre, coasting by on pure heart and likable, earnestly easygoing charisma gets him surprisingly far. It certainly makes up for a relative lack of imagination that can weight things down a bit too much; the pining for the return of the rockstar lifestyle on Teenage Rockstars and Goodnight, Rock And Roll can lack a bit of flavour, as can the lamenting over a broken relationship on Careless. Really, it doesn’t much more for Flowers Upside Down to work though, be that a slight change in perspective or a shot of greater emotion to feel a bit more emphatic. It’s what elevates Blue Vacation above a typical “state of the world” track with McMahon’s sense of escapism rooted in shielding his daughter from the evils around her, or House In The Trees as an open arm to old friends grown apart through time and circumstance, and how they’re always welcome to turn back to McMahon for help or advice. It’s a refreshingly level take on subject matter that’s become really dry lately, built on even further when imprinted on others around him, whether that’s the lonely casualty of a failed relationship on Monday Flowers, or the former hellraiser stumbling through life and burdened by her own melancholy on Penelope. It’s all incredibly broad, but it’s more indicative of the universality imbued in McMahon’s writing, viewed with the benefit of age and experience that feels more genuine and free of unnecessary glibness.
It’s definitely something that the instrumentation could work on given how remarkably inoffensive it is, but in the context of what it’s accompanying, it’s hard to deny that it works. There’s a warm, emotional swell that comes from the glossy production and prominent pianos on Paper Rain and House In The Trees that’s an easy sell with McMahon’s earnestness, and his trembling, warbling tones have a vulnerability that largely feels earned. There’s emotion here that does run deep, and while the guise of clean-cut indie-pop could easily convince otherwise, the rootsy undercurrents are noticeable enough to have the necessary impact. There’s a rollick and sway to tracks like Ohio that sees gentle guitars and real percussion form a foundational sound rather than drive it, and when that’s applied to a track like This Wild Ride that has McMahon in full piano-ballad mode, it somehow feels bigger and more grand, something that has much more mileage behind it. Of course, that’s not always the case; predictably, things can get a bit too clean and sanitised when distanced from a more stable live core, like the synthesised strings and drums of Teenage Rockstars which fall too deeply into clandestine indie-pop sterility, and it’s not as if McMahon reaches a position where he can really show some rawness (though with how weedy his voice can be, that might not even be an option), but again, it’s a factor of how age is presented, and there’s a wistfulness here that goes well alongside it.
And that might be giving McMahon a bit too much credit here, especially when so much of that is down to subtext, and everything else isn’t that far removed from a safe, secure indie-pop win. But those factors do hold a lot of weight with regards to this album’s quality, and even if Upside Down Flowers isn’t the most profound and revelatory listen, it’s played straight enough to get its message across with a good deal of heart and wholesomeness. Some might want or expect more, and that’s fine, but this is arguably the best solo album McMahon has released to date, and if something a bit simpler is what ultimately gets him there, that’s easy enough to accept.
For fans of: Bleachers, Coasts, Jack’s Mannequin
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Upside Down Flowers’ by Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness is out now on Fantasy Records.