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 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.”
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.