Andrew McMahon is an artist who has had a very loyal and passionate following for a very long time. Starting with Something Corporate, which offered a piano-led twist on the emo/pop-punk trends of the early 2000s, McMahon has been regarded as a master of melody and a writer capable of churning out fiercely relatable songs. Suffice to say that BuzzFeed hit the nail on the head (for the first and last time) when it labeled “Konstantine” as the emo “Freebird.” When McMahon transitioned his career from Something Corporate into the poppier and more mature Jack’s Mannequin, it was a testament to his talent as a songwriter, his likability as a performer, and the strong personal resonance of his work that just about all of his fans were willing to go along for the ride.
Since Jack’s Mannequin ended its three-album journey with 2011’s People & Things, McMahon has only gone further down the pop rabbit hole. 2014’s Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness was heavy on synths, big beats, and towering pop hooks. Fittingly, it scored Andrew his first charting single on the Billboard Hot 100. (The song, “Cecilia and the Satellite,” peaked at 96.) The success of “Cecilia” paves the road to Zombies on Broadway, McMahon’s second album under the Wilderness moniker and his purest pop album to date.
Indeed, Zombies is the kind of record where at least half the songs could have been the lead single. The actual lead single is the luminescent “Fire Escape,” which splits the difference between where McMahon comes from and where he’s going. The intro and verses are backed by tinkling pianos, while the choruses open up into a skyscraping hook, a colossal bass drop, and a “woah-oh” earworm in the backing vocals. It’s among the catchiest songs McMahon has ever written. Similarly massive are “So Close” and “Brooklyn, You’re Killing Me.” The former offers an infectious danceable beat, while the latter pairs spoken word verses with a big shout-along chorus in a way that recalls parts of “I’m Ready,” from Everything in Transit. With songs this big in his back pocket, it’s honestly remarkable that McMahon hasn’t scored more hits throughout his career.
“Brooklyn, You’re Killing Me,” the album’s proper opener, calls back to Everything in Transit in more ways than just its spoken-word sections. The key line, “I was baptized in your parents’ pool in Southern California, then I fled,” feels like an intentional callback to “Rescued” (“And there this was, hiding at the bottom of your swimming pool, some September”). Transit is a concept record about a summer spent falling in love in California, but by the time “Rescued” rolls around in the tracklist, the summer is over and the romance is coming to a close. The callback to this moment in “Brooklyn” feels particularly apt, as Zombies is McMahon’s New York album, similar to how Transit was his California album.
On first listen, Zombies on Broadway doesn’t internalize its sense of location quite as masterfully as Everything in Transit did. The sunny hooks, shimmering piano lines, and driving pop-rock atmosphere of Transit made it legitimately sound like a trip down the topsy-turvy sidewalks of Venice Beach. However, reading through the press materials for the record, it becomes easier to see what McMahon was going for with his NYC album. “I’m a person who stays up long and late,” he said. “I love sensory overload and tend to thrive when there’s too much to do. That’s the beauty of New York and the hardest part of being there, since it was difficult for me to turn down any opportunity that might be the next potential source of inspiration.” Zombies captures the sensory overload and late-night atmosphere of a night out on the town in New York City. The arrangements are packed with different sounds, from the glitchy, chopped-up vocal samples of “Don’t Speak for Me (True)” to the euphoric vocal layering of “So Close,” all the way to the ringing roller coaster dreamscapes of album highlight “Walking in My Sleep.” Throughout, the record sounds as big and busy as the big city, which was probably part of the point.
In making a pure pop album, McMahon also embraces the succinctness of pop music. McMahon has been known to make lengthy albums at previous points in his career, with both Something Corporate’s Leaving Through the Window and Jack’s Mannequin’s The Glass Passenger pushing an hour in length. Zombies on Broadway clocks in at a much leaner 38 minutes. Of the 11 tracks, one is a 30-second intro and one is a big, climactic 5:40 finale. All of the other songs are between three and four minutes. The result is the tightest and most direct album McMahon has ever made, and one of his most cohesive. Side one is all neon-drenched pop alchemy, featuring four of the five pre-release tracks (“Brooklyn, You’re Killing Me,” “Fire Escape,” “So Close,” and “Don’t Speak for Me”), as well as the equally hooky “Dead Man’s Dollar.” These tracks are dense, loud, and fun, clearly aided by the trio of producers (Gregg Wattenberg, Jake Sinclair, and Tommy English) that McMahon had as his partners in crime for this record.
Side two starts with the whirling synths of “Shot of a Cannon,” but generally hews closer to the earnest, ultra-melodic pop-rock we’ve come to expect from McMahon in the past. If the first half is where Andrew tries out his pop influences and builds the New York theme, then side two is where he focuses in on the other themes of the record: family, love, devotion, and the sense of separation caused by a life lived on the road. “There is something that happens to a person after being gone for a great length from the place they call home,” McMahon wrote when he dropped “Walking in My Sleep,” the album’s strongest track, as a pre-release single. “Once plane rides and hotel nights accumulate, there is a sense that the world has shifted in some imperceivable way. That maybe the people you love and the things that you hope are waiting for you back home have all moved on in your absence.”
The other songs on the record’s back half also carry this theme, from the Caribbean-flavored “Island Radio,” which mirrors the fear and doubt of “Walking in My Sleep” (“I wish that you were on what I was on/But you were only on my mind”) to “Love and Great Buildings,” which rejects doubt in favor of faith (“The best things are designed to stand the test of time”). Album closer “The Birthday Song,” meanwhile, is a classic song about touring life, delivered as a pep-talk from McMahon to himself. The song is the closest McMahon comes to revisiting the pure piano rock days of Jack’s Mannequin and Something Corporate, with a hair-raising chorus (“It’s not your birthday/This isn’t Mardi Gras either/Tomorrow’s a workday/You’ve got a life and a spaceship to fly/You’ve got a good job/And a beautiful yellow-haired daughter/Come back to Earth, kid/You know you can’t chase the stars under water”) that sees McMahon dealing with the demons of being away from his family for too many days and nights at a time. By the final lines of the song (“So blow out your candles/It’s better than letting them burn out”), McMahon has resigned himself to touring life and the separation it causes. But the haunting and sudden conclusion to the song and the record leave an open-ended tension hanging in the air—something that can’t be resolved in the space of a pop song.
Of all the artists to rise out of our “scene,” arguably none of them were ever sharper songwriters than Andrew McMahon. Even if you strip away the nostalgia, early McMahon gems like “I Woke up in a Car” and “I Want to Save You” are classic pop songs with terrific melodies and surprisingly mature lyrics. (McMahon was only 19 years old when Leaving Through the Window came out in 2002.) While some fans will likely react negatively to the heavily synth-infused pop sound of Zombies on Broadway, the truth is that McMahon has always been a pop songwriter. Whether he was channeling the likes of The Beatles, Billy Joel, Elton John, or Tom Petty during the Jack’s Mannequin days or figuring in more modern pop sounds on the first Wilderness record, his music has rarely been something that would sound alien on the radio dial. Frankly, it’s thrilling for him to go all-in and make a big, epic-sounding pop record like Zombies. The production may be more dominant than it has been in the past, but at the core, this album is still made up of songs with very strong melodies and very resonant lyrical themes. At the end of the day, it’s just another sterling chapter in the fascinating, unpredictable, and endlessly rewarding story of Andrew McMahon.