When Andrew McMahon announced his new LP, Upside Down Flowers, he referred to the album’s producer, Butch Walker, as a “fellow traveler.” That word choice was fitting, because if one word could describe McMahon over the 20 years that have so far encompassed his career, “traveler” is it. McMahon has made a lot of types of records over the years. He’s made emo-flecked piano rock records and sunny pop-punk records. He’s made Americana-influenced road trip records and towering stadium pop records. He’s made records about California and records about New York. He made one of the ultimate records about living young and free, followed by a record about almost dying young. He’s traversed a lot of territory over the course of eight LPs and three very distinct chapters. But he’s never made a record quite like Upside Down Flowers before, a record that is, ostensibly, about a traveler looking back and taking stock of where he’s been so far.
Upside Down Flowers is the most outwardly nostalgic album that McMahon has ever made. He’s written about the past before, but never in such detail or with such a storyteller’s eye. The first song on the album is called “Teenage Rockstars,” and it’s an unabashed tribute to McMahon’s bandmates from the Something Corporate days. The second song is called “Ohio,” and it vividly recounts the drive that transplanted his family from Ohio to the west coast—right down to the band that was playing on the car stereo. Listening to these songs feels like sitting next to McMahon on a couch, flipping through a photo album of old polaroids and hearing him recount the adventures and misadventures depicted in each. It’s a kind of intimacy we haven’t heard from him before.
As she muses aloud about whether it’s better to raise a child to be compassionate but naive, or shrewd but callous, I think of my own tendency toward the willful naivety of a bleeding heart, the way it has been ironically challenging to the people I love most. I think of my partner’s concern when I would pick up hitchhikers, loan money I might never get back, miss important personal obligations because I felt I was morally moved to attend a march or demonstration protesting one of this administration’s innumerable injustices. I think of my mother negotiating the line between insulation and exposure, of the times when my fragile adolescent ego was wounded by the brass tacks she considered a vital part of education.
You tour so much, you take a little bit of time off, and then you gotta earn some money, so you just tour more. I’ve been writing songs along the way. But this [recent fall trek was] the last tour. In December, January, February, March, I’ll be in pre-production, getting ready to do the next record. [A 2019 release date] would be nice, for sure, but I don’t want to just rush a record to meet a deadline. This record is really important for our career. I want to make a fuckin’ statement. I want to write the record of my career.
Tim Ingham, writing at Rolling Stone, makes the argument that the LP as we know it, is in trouble:
Sure, hits on streaming services make a lot of people a lot of money. But as the death knell rings for the album — and the music industry returns to the pre-Beatles era of track-led consumption — are fans being encouraged to develop a less-committed relationship with new artists? […]
The music industry is facing a bit of an existential crisis, then: How can something (streaming) be considered the “equivalent” of something else (an album sale) when, by your own measure, the former now completely dominates the latter?
In 2018, “streaming-equivalent albums” seems like daft phrasing. It is e-mail-equivalent faxes. It is car-equivalent steeds. It is Netflix-equivalent Betamax.
“High Hopes” spends a second week at No. 1 on the streaming-, airplay- and sales-driven Hot Rock Songs chart, where it’s Panic’s first leader. The track becomes the band’s first top five hit on Adult Pop Songs (6-5) and second top 10 on Pop Songs (12-9), after “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” which reached No. 2 in 2006