Andrew McMahon has had seven album covers over the course of his career. Of these seven, only two have featured his face in some form. The Glass Passenger shows McMahon sitting, looking down at a piano amidst a larger studio. McMahon’s return to the studio after being diagnosed with cancer brought a new degree of fragility to his songwriting. The summery shine of Everything in Transit changed shape on this record, reflecting on a plight that is completely different than returning home to California.
Nine years later, and McMahon’s face is back on cover on his album, Zombies on Broadway. His face is split into two. His left side is no different than any headshot you might see on a debut solo record, while the right takes the same head shot, with the addition of him wearing an astronaut’s helmet against the backdrop of a city. This is the first time his face has made direct eye contact with the listener looking at the album art, and the split face seems to suggest a split between the present and the future, the tangible and the fantasy, the safe and the ambitious.
These days, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness serves as the outlet for McMahon’s songwriting brain. The project’s self-titled debut (one of my earliest reviews) felt like a natural progression from People and Things, negotiating alternative sensibilities with pop inspirations, complete with the adult plights of raising a child and supporting a family. Two years after his solo debut, McMahon has pivoted towards synthesizing his established songwriting abilities with a new, more sugary twist. Zombies on Broadway shows Andrew McMahon at his strongest creative form, his grandest thesis statement since Everything in Transit.
One of the most distinct elements of this record is its unabashedly poppy sound. Similar to what The 1975 did last year with I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It. Zombies on Broadway combines the melodic sweetness of alternative, indie, emo with the slick vision that radio demands. Of course, there aren’t extended instrumental vignettes or certified club hits like “The Sound”, but the crossover potential between AbsolutePunk (RIP) and top 40 radio is not lost here. Piano-driven melodies serve as foundations to Carly Rae Jepsen choruses on “So Close”, while McMahon’s inner Nick Jonas takes form on the trilling rings of “it’s true” in the chorus of “Don’t Speak for Me (True)”. All of this happens with the clear-cut confidence that McMahon grew into with Jack’s Mannequin, Smash, and songs like “Cecilia and the Satellite” on the debut record.
It only takes a few listens before each song on this record sticks out. This is due to a mix of catchy choruses and resonant moments, moments that stick through McMahon’s ability to weave emotion and romantic melody in an optimistic manner. “Fire Escape” is the closest this album gets to his previous work, feeling similar in tone to the “Cecilia and the Satellite”, complete with the “woah-ohs” and youthful jubilee of acoustic guitars and anthemic chorus of “you’re number one/you’re the reason I’m still/up at dawn”. This album’s songs are colorful and confident, with ideas that shine in huge ways when they aren’t limited to the piano. For the first time, it feels as if he is writing to the masses, beyond the established niche that has grown to love his body of work, and both sides of the aisle will come away wholly satisfied with what he brings to the table.
He sings of the difficult negotiations of touring to live a dream and raising a family on “Dead Man’s Dollar”. It sounds a bit like a La La Land trope when he sings about “living in the flight path” and “trying to pin these dreams to the wings of a check”, before bursting out with the declaration that he “want[s] to make a life, make a life for [you]” with the family and daughter that he holds dear. Followed up with “Shot Out of a Cannon”, both songs evoke aural images of space and the city, a revolving feeling that resonates throughout this record. The latter acts as an embrace of the ethereal power of living without limits, as he sings that “we could tell the world that we disappeared” as “we travel through the air”.
Between the gospel chants of “Walking in My Sleep” and the rapid fire spoken-word verses on “Brooklyn, You’re Killing Me”, the powerful grandeur that this album captures shines most prominently on “Love and Great Buildings”. Opening out with a piano theme that draws equally from 30 Seconds to Mars and Owl City in the best way possible, McMahon puts together a poignant connection between love, cities, and following your dreams. He sings about keeping his heart together as it faces the “high rise dreams” of keeping the lights on and pool renovations, before kicking into a towering chorus that provokes images of a city like New York City or Baltimore on I-95 as the sky turns from orange to dark at the end of the day. The wistfulness and continuity of a city skyline sticks like the trials of true love, as “strong hearts and concrete stay alive/through the great depressions”. McMahon’s romantic, unapologetic declaration of how “the best things are designed to stand the test of time” rings through in the most genuine of ways.
The powerful thrust of being a father guided Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness’s debut effort. Those songs had a romantic, immensely personal scope to them, something that isn’t lost on Zombies on Broadway. But two years after his first full-length record to use his name, McMahon is as confident as ever, strong in his songwriting skills and desire to explore new heights. He uses his established songwriting abilities and brings them to a new place, filled with sugary pop melodies that commit themselves to taking us to a journey that captures the vast unknown of the future and fast-moving present. This record fills space in a different way than his previous work, ready to fill the vast expanses of an arena, while filling us with joy and fervor in a fresh, grand way.