“Write what you know.” That piece of advice has been given countless times to countless writers across countless different mediums, from books to films to TV shows. It’s not a bad tip, especially for greener storytellers, but it can also be limiting. In the world of songwriting, especially, one of the great joys is how a song can allow you to inhabit someone else’s life for a few minutes, or to experience a world other than your own. There’s something exhilarating about when a talented songwriter steps outside their own life to take a walk in someone else’s shows, whether it’s Springsteen writing a bunch of songs about killers and criminals on Nebraska or Taylor Swift closing her own diary to explore character on folklore and evermore. Still, for some writers, the “Write what you know” mantra is the gateway to brilliance, and few young songwriters ever took it more seriously than Andrew McMahon did on Something Corporate’s 2002 major label debut, Leaving Through the Window.
McMahon turned 19 on September 3, 2001. A few months later, on the day after Christmas, he and his bandmates commenced recording for the album that would become their big breakthrough statement. By January, the album was done, and on May 7, 2002, it hit the streets. McMahon was still four months shy of his 20th birthday, and less than two years out of high school. Rather than try to write songs that hid his youth, McMahon embraced it. The result was one of the greatest and most authentic albums ever made about teen angst, growing up, and coming of age. Leaving Through the Window is now older than McMahon was when the record came out, but it remains gripping and beautiful due to how timeless the themes and stories proved to be.
You realize things about youth when you get on the far side of 25 – things that you probably never thought about in the moment. You grasp the beauty of the innocence, the value of the friendships you didn’t cherish, the magic of a life lived with minimal responsibility, and the fleeting nature of all of the above. Coming to terms with these things can cause you to paper over the less savory parts of your youth: the heartbreaks, the boredom, the asshole classmates, the hopes and dreams you had that curdled when adulthood came calling. The result is that, when 30-something or 40-something songwriters write songs about their youth, they often view it with rose-colored glasses. One of the great things about Leaving Through the Window is that it’s an album about youth told from the vantage point of youth. McMahon and his bandmates were already starting to reflect upon the beauty of what, for them, was drawing to a close, but they were also close enough to it to not iron out all the wrinkles. And so, maybe more than any other album I know, this one has always told a version of a youthful story that felt true to life – at least to me.
Then again, maybe that’s my own experience talking. Leaving Through the Window came out in May 2002, but I didn’t hear it until December 2005. I was in the middle of my freshman year of high school – a school year that, for a variety of reasons, I largely loathed – and this album’s mood and vibe proved to be the perfect match with what I was feeling. The song about yearning for a girl with killer music taste (“Punk Rock Princess”); the song that said all the things you ever wanted to say to the school bully (“If You C Jordan”); the song that evoked complete and utter loneliness (“Globes & Maps”); the song about wanting to blast off and become more than the circumstances you were locked inside (“The Astronaut”). All these songs felt like they were tailor-made to soundtrack moments of the life I was living. As an awkward teen trying and failing to fit in, surrounded by the tornado of change and hormones that being 15 years old brings, these songs were my lifeline.
With time, though, the songs I’ve come to love most on Leaving Through the Window aren’t the ones that felt like pages from my journal back then, but the ones that seemed to anticipate how it would feel to look back at my youth.
One of those is “I Woke Up in a Car,” the best song on the album and for my money one of the two or three best songs Andrew McMahon ever wrote. “I met a girl who kept tattoos for homes that she had loved/If I were her, I’d paint my body ‘til all my skin was gone.” Of all the beautiful, insightful lines that Andrew has written over the years, that one might be my favorite. The song is about coming of age and taking control of your life for the first time – about grabbing the wheel and starting to steer after years of sitting in the passenger seat. It’s a song about restlessness, but also about contentment. What could possibly be a happier sentiment than saying that you’ve found dozens or even hundreds of places that felt like home? It’s a reflection of a beautiful, privileged youth – one spent with people and places that feel comfortable and welcoming, but also one that you have to leave behind. When you grow up, leaving home is a rite of passage, no matter how much you love the place you’re leaving. For Andrew, leaving home meant jumping on a tour bus and crisscrossing the country day after day and night after night. Even if you’ve never experienced the nomadic lifestyle that “I Woke Up in a Car” speaks to specifically, though, there’s something about the song that captures, more universally, the wanderlust and intense hope you feel in your late teens and early twenties. When I hear the song now, I reflect fondly on my own “leaving home” story, and of the people I found after that moment and the ones I had to leave behind to chase the next exit down the highway.
The other song that has stuck with me most is “Cavanaugh Park,” a song McMahon wrote when he was 16 or 17 years old but which carries the wisdom and perspective of a person with twice that many years under their belt. The narrator of the song watches time pass from the vantage point of a public park – a place where he played in the sandbox as a kid, where he and friends got high as teenagers, and where he came alone at night as a young adult to think about his life and ponder his future. It holds in its verses both the safe naivete of youth (“At Cavanaugh Park/Where you used to take me to play in the sand…”) and, sometimes in the very next line, the specter of the cold dark world that’s working just beyond the park’s boundaries (“…And said to me, ‘Son, one day you’ll be a man/And men can do terrible things’/Yes they can.”) Later, Andrew describes Cavanaugh Park as the place where he “used to think that this life would be good,” which might be the simplest and barest distillation of adulthood’s brutal realities that has ever been put into a song. Growing up means freedom, but it also means facing the bad things. Not even out of his 20s, McMahon already knew about that truth, and he poured it into these songs and made it their beating heart and their core source of tension.
Leaving Through the Window got me through a tough year. Soon, I’d find my way to brighter days – and to brighter music to soundtrack them, some of that music also made by Andrew McMahon. But I’ll never forget those lonely, angsty teenage days when these songs felt like a salve to an aching heart and a restless mind. I’ve listened to the album so many times since then that I’ve almost stopped associating it with my own dark chapter at this point, which is a good thing. I’d rather not hear “Globes & Maps” or “You’re Gone” or “Not What It Seems” and be transported back to that moment of my life. Instead, I’d rather hear everything else this album has to offer. Because there is so much else this album has to offer. It’s a record about nostalgia, rebellion, old friends, and homesickness. It’s chaos and it’s wonder and it’s growing up. And it’s perfect.