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.
Even when McMahon’s songs are inventions of fiction, they retain the same grounded, and lived-in feel that the autobiographical bits carry. See “Paper Rain,” about a desperate man betting everything he has on a Las Vegas card game, or “Penelope,” about a restless girl running away from something. These songs have such deep empathy for their characters that they feel like they’re about long-lost friends—or maybe about McMahon himself—even if they aren’t.
As recently as last year, some people would have accused McMahon of chasing pop trends. The Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness era has been defined by synthesizers, big hooks, and even bigger pop production. The 2014 single “Cecilia and the Satellite” brought McMahon closer to mainstream success than he’d ever been, and 2017’s Zombies on Broadway was his most pop-centric album yet. Upside Down Flowers is a reversal. There’s not a song here that could be positioned for mainstream pop radio. Instead, these songs carry a distinctly classic feel. Rather than writing for pop radio, McMahon sounds like he’s reconvening with the artists that have always been core influences: Billy Joel, Elton John, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, The Beach Boys, Tom Petty. The character in “Paper Rain” could be from a Bruce song, while the sweeping strings of “Penelope” give it the weightless, timeless beauty of an Abbey Road ballad. Butch Walker’s production adds to the throwback feel, underlining the richness and lushness of the arrangements and sometimes even putting the focus on instruments that aren’t McMahon’s trusty piano: lots of strings; thumping basslines; pounding drums; expressive acoustic guitar accents; at least one sublimely emotional electric guitar solo. These elements bring extra emotion and color to these songs—things that weren’t lacking anyway. The result is an album that offers a more varied and full-bodied start-to-finish arc than anything we’ve heard from McMahon since The Glass Passenger.
There’s a song tucked near the back of this album called “House in the Trees,” and it’s arguably one of the four or five best songs that McMahon has ever written. Like much of this record, the song is about looking back and realizing just how much things have changed. It’s for those late-night drives when you find yourself thinking about the past and the people who used to be in your life but aren’t anymore. Why does that happen? Why do we let go of the friends who once served as major cornerstones to our world? The song posits a few reasons: distance; time; lost commonalities; the foolishness of youth. “It’s easy when you’re young not to realize you’re lucky,” McMahon sings at the end of the first verse, and it cuts right to the bone. The chorus only twists the knife: “When the last of your friends are gone/You learn a whole lot about hanging on and on.” It’s not possible to manage the journey from youth to adulthood without losing a few friends along the way. That’s the thing that makes nostalgia so exquisitely painful, because remembering the good times—the misadventures and the music and the moments that are scorched into your brain as if someone branded them there—means remembering the people who were a part of those memories. If you’re lucky, those people are still close enough to call or text, to reminisce. But sometimes the years pile to the point where being the person to break the silence feels like the equivalent of lifting a two-ton weight. How do you make amends for all those wordless years, or all the things you never said to one another? “I wrote it in a letter,” McMahon sings in “House in the Trees,” about the things he never got to say to a long-lost friend; “I’m sure I’ll send it someday.”
Upside Down Flowers is a record about trying to make sense of the past: of the tears that were in your sister’s eyes as you drove away from one home and toward another; of why we sometimes push away the people that matter most to us; of the decay of time and the things it ruthlessly steals away; and of why we have to discard bits and pieces of our former selves to embrace what comes next. The resulting record is a beautiful symphony about the messiness of life and love and music and connection. It’s a journey wrought with honesty, poignancy, humility, and deep self-reflection. McMahon has rarely been better.