“Even if your voice comes back again/Maybe there’ll be no one listening.”
The morning I climbed into my car to drive myself to the first day of my last year of high school, those lyrics punched me straight in the gut. I was reeling from a broken heart, given to me by a girl who’d occupied my mind all summer long. A few months earlier, she would have been walking the same high school halls that I was driving toward that morning. But she’d graduated and was now two hours south, probably waking up for her first day of college classes. Things hadn’t worked out between us, and if I’d been smart, I would have realized three months earlier that they were never going to. I didn’t, and now I was nursing a few fresh wounds and the prospect of facing down one last year of high school without her and without all the other friends who had left this town behind. “Crashin” was the song playing on the stereo, but it was a line from Andrew McMahon’s previous album that might have been most appropriate: “Hold on/It’s gonna be a hard day.”
By rights, The Glass Passenger shouldn’t have been the soundtrack to any of this: not my end-of-summer heartbreak, and certainly not that very conflicted drive to school. It was September 2nd, and Passenger, the second full-length album from Jack’s Mannequin, wasn’t due out until the 30th, a whole four weeks later. But I already knew the album by heart, a consequence of having done little more than listen to its 13 songs over and over and over again for the preceding two weeks.
I’m not sure what would have become of me in the final two weeks of summer if The Glass Passenger hadn’t decided to grace me with its presence. The album leaked six weeks ahead of its release date, which was bad news for McMahon but a godsend for me. As summer began to wind down, it felt like all my friends were heading off to college. I’d always loved summer and always dreaded the end of it, but that year was different. Once that girl was gone, I felt like I had too much time to dwell on my own sadness and think about what might have been. It was the first and only time where I actively wanted summer to end. I wanted the distraction of school and classes and extracurricular activities and friends. So it was serendipitous when, on the morning after that girl packed up and drove off to college, I logged into my AbsolutePunk.net account to find that The Glass Passenger was out there.
With different timing or circumstances, who knows how I’d look back on The Glass Passenger today. As an album, it’s may be McMahon’s least cohesive. Though the record was pitched in press materials as a “rise from the ashes” LP, written in the wake of McMahon’s battle with leukemia, Passenger is actually a grab bag of moods and styles. Certainly, there are a few songs that feel like they come from a man with a new lease on life. “Crashin” is about trying to find your way back to normal after a tumultuous struggle, while “Swim” is a hymn to resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. But there’s also stuff like “Suicide Blonde” and “American Love,” breezy pop songs with low stakes, or songs like “Bloodshot” and “Annie Use Your Telescope,” experimental stabs at new sonic directions. In retrospect, Jack’s Mannequin’s third record—2011’s People & Things—feels decidedly more of one piece. But while People & Things is an easier listen, The Glass Passenger will always mean more to me.
Because boy, did I lean on this album in those early days. When I needed a distraction from my own nagging broken heart, here suddenly was an album from one of my favorite artists on the planet, brought to me a month and a half early by some stroke of circumstance. That first day, I don’t think I stopped listening to this album once for the better part of 12 hours. I vividly remember wanting to take this album for a night drive but having nowhere to go. So I told my parents a friend was having a bonfire and just drove around town listening to it. In retrospect, that was maybe the loneliest night of my life, but instead of feeling pathetic, this album made it feel like a form of recovery. “Just keep your head above,” MaMahon sang on “Swim.” I clung to those words and let them be my life raft when I felt like I had nothing else to hold on to. “You gotta swim, swim for your life/Swim for the music that saves you when you’re not so sure you’ll survive/You gotta swim, swim when it hurts/The whole world is watching/You haven’t come this far to fall off the earth.” My god, did I need to hear those words that day.
I’ve heard people say that this album saved their lives. They tattooed the words of “Swim” or “Caves” on their arms, because those songs gave them strength to fight when they couldn’t find it anywhere else. In comparison to those stories—about depression and suicidal thoughts and cancer battles that mirrored McMahon’s—my own tale seems positively quaint. I was a 17-year-old kid hurting over a girl who left. That’s it. But the magic of music is that it can be different things to different people. It can wear so many different faces, depending on the story behind your pain. The Glass Passenger, at its core, is a record about resilience and recovery. It’s about facing down the thing that scares you most in the world and not letting your nerve break. “I need light in the dark as I search for the resolution” McMahon sings on “The Resolution,” the song that served as the album’s first single. It’s a track that alternates between bracing optimism (“I’m alive/And I don’t need a witness/To know that I survived/I’m not looking for forgiveness”) and resignation at the fact that recovery doesn’t happen overnight (“It’s a long road back from hell/Some stories I will never tell”). McMahon had his own story, but songs like this one spoke to universal struggles.
Over the years, I’ve often felt that The Glass Passenger might have been more effective if McMahon had tweaked the tracklist a little. Famously, the sequencing of the album shifted several times leading up to release—to the point where the leaked version led off with “The Resolution” instead of “Crashin.” McMahon also left what were arguable some of the best songs as b-sides (“At Full Speed,” “Doris Day”) or saved them for a later EP (“Dear Jack,” “There, There Katie”). The latter two were released alongside the Dear Jack documentary, which chronicled McMahon’s battle with leukemia. I always wondered why The Glass Passenger wasn’t as straightforward as just being “the cancer album,” when McMahon clearly had the songs to make such a serious, unflinching record. But I’ve tried to craft my own sequencing to this album many times, including those songs, and while the result is wonderful, it loses some of the energy that makes The Glass Passenger so unique. Sure, songs like “American Love” and “Suicide Blonde”—and even the penultimate “Orphans”—feel at odds with the emotional punch of stuff like “Swim” and “Caves.” But the moments of lightness and levity also define the album’s mood: darker and more serious than Transit, but with sunlight starting to break through the clouds.
“Caves” captures that entire spectrum—the depths of darkness and the blinding flashes of light—over the course of seven and a half minutes. McMahon says the roots of the song came to him in a dream. He woke up with the haunting opening piano line in his head and stumbled out of bed to write the song at four in the morning. The next day, he wrote the second half, in a cramped, hot-as-hell rehearsal space where he had to keep the lights off to avoid introducing any extra heat into the equation. That image—of McMahon pounding away at a piano in the dark, sweat dripping down onto the keys—feels so fitting given the song that came out of it. “The walls are caving in/As far as I can see,” he bellows. “The doors got locked for sure/There’s no one here but me.” “Caves” is about McMahon’s battle with cancer, but again, the message is also more universal than that: it’s a song about doing battle with darkness and fighting as hard as you possibly can because you understand that no one else can do it for you. In the hospital, MaMahon had the help of doctors and the love of family. He also had his sister, whose bone marrow transplant saved his life. But at the end of the day, there was no one there but him. It was his battle to win or lose, and he won.
Everyone has moments in their lives where they feel broken, or confused, or defeated. Everyone has moments where they feel weak. In those moments, it’s tempting to reach for sad songs. It’s comforting to hear another human being hurting as much as you, because listening to that kind of pain on tape makes you feel less alone. But the albums that save your life when you’re at your lowest points are not the ones that make you hurt more. They’re the ones that force you to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and fucking fight.
When I first pushed play on The Glass Passenger 10 years ago, I was expecting sad songs. I was expecting songs that were reflective and melancholy and introspective. What I got instead was an album about the strength of the human spirit. As I listened throughout those last two weeks of summer, over and over again, I began to understand. I saw that the key phrase in my favorite song—the gorgeous “Hammers and Strings,” a lullaby McMahon wrote for his own piano—wasn’t the despairing one (“It’s just that at night, I’ve got nowhere to hide”), but the hopeful one (“Give me something to believe in”). The beauty of this record is that it isn’t a pure distillation of despair and hardship, as I tried to make it with my ill-advised alternate tracklisting. Rather, the beauty exists in the way the album blends despair and optimism into the same piece of art, and often into the very same song.
As I drove to school that first morning of senior year, “Crashin” screaming out of the speakers, I let both the despair and optimism wash over me. I felt the lyrics in the chorus: “Even if your voice comes back again/Maybe there’ll be no one listening/And even if I find the strength to stand/That doesn’t mean I won’t go missing.” I was cautious about going back to that school: the school where I’d met her and fallen in love with her; the school we wouldn’t share together anymore; the school that would be very different now that so many of the people I’d long associated it with would be gone. What if I didn’t get over what happened that summer? And even if I did, would anyone care or notice a difference? But there was a reason I was letting this song usher in the next chapter of my life, and it wasn’t because it was offering a shoulder for commiseration. It was because, in the verses, McMahon seemed to let the doubts and fears of the chorus slip away, in favor of another impulse: “I wanna hear some music.”
The message, to me, was simple: sometimes, the only thing to do is turn up the volume and pray that you make it through.