Singer-songwriter Andrew McMahon’s greatest mainstream success came with the release of his debut solo album “Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness,” whose standout single “Cecilia and the Satellite” saw enough airplay that most listeners are likely to recognize it. Formerly the vocalist and songwriter of indie rock band Something Corporate and alt-rock band Jack’s Mannequin, McMahon is well-deserving of the more widespread recognition of his recent work.
Like his self-titled debut, the recently released “Zombies on Broadway” is more indie pop than the rock of his previous projects but remains powered by McMahon’s strong sense of metaphor-based lyricism and catchy rhythms. At 11 tracks and only 38 minutes in length, “Zombies on Broadway” displays the artist’s increased musical ambition, while still capturing the simple beauty of McMahon’s previous album.
The 27-second album opener, “Zombies Intro,” consists of snatches of music intercut with the rising sound of a train and a distant woman’s voice. Serving almost as a sampling of the album’s imagery, the musical effects quickly transition into the album’s first full-length song, “Brooklyn, You’re Killing Me.” The song is fast-paced, alternating between a catchy chorus and rapped verses. Alone among the songs on the album, it is more reminiscent of McMahon’s earlier work with Something Corporate than the soft “Cecelia and the Satellite,” and serves as a reminder that, despite his current keyboard-driven sound, McMahon’s musical background is in rock.
The next song, “So Close” is more generic in its pop chorus, but its dark and vivid lyrics — “We cross a country / In an airplane with the wings on fire” — help develop a sense of emotional tension. This feeling of uncertainty and anxiety, juxtaposed with hope and courage, gives way to the next track, “Don’t Speak for Me (True).” More stripped-down than the previous two songs, “Don’t Speak for Me” shines for precisely this reason. The emotional lyrics — “Out here where the water’s deep / I think I found a voice in me” — and McMahon’s voice complement the lyrics perfectly in the absence of stronger backing tracks.
“Fire Escape” marks another change in the album’s sound, returning to the formula of softer, lyric-driven verses and more powerful choruses. With the brighter tones of these songs, the subject matter lightens as well; “Fire Escape” is a sensory celebration of nightlife and New York City. Although it was the first single released from the album, “Fire Escape” is one of the least memorable, perhaps a consequence of being packed between two of the album’s best songs.
The high point of the album, “Dead Man’s Dollar,” succeeds in combining the emotional vulnerability of “Don’t Speak for Me” and the catchier pop influences and repetitions of “So Close” and “Fire Escape.” Opening with a quiet keyboard melody, the song gradually picks up in pace, adding guitar and additional vocal backing as it buildings to a captivating chorus.
“Shot Out of a Cannon” keeps the momentum of the album moving as an upbeat pop song that is itself a meditation on movement. Thematically recalling “So Close” and “Fire Escape,” it captures the feeling of hurtling forward, a sense marked by both excitement and uncertainty. The following track, “Walking in My Sleep,” is a collection of powerful vignettes, stringing together images in an ode to a loved one, blurred with the elements of daily life. Driven by piano and guitar, the song is still punctuated with quieter moments that allow McMahon’s vocals to shine through.
The ninth track, “Island Radio,” fails to stand out musically from the rest of the album. However, its lyricism shines through, playing with the situation of being stranded on a desert island as a metaphor for a one-sided infatuation. McMahon wistfully sings, “I can’t spend another night alone / I tried swimming but I can’t get home.”
The album’s penultimate track, “Love and Great Buildings,” is perhaps the strongest example of McMahon’s grasp of metaphor and ensures that the album does not lose steam as it draws to a close. It continues the album’s trend of vivid lyrics with “Strong hearts and concrete stay alive / Through the great depressions / Yeah, the best things are designed to stand the test of time.” In this track, McMahon delves into the world of politics on “Love and Great Buildings,” alluding to the challenges faced by many during the recent recession. Still, McMahon remains optimistic, singing, “For the great deceptions in a world that’s such a blur / We’ll stand the test of time.”
“Birthday Song” brings the album to a strong conclusion and reads as a letter to someone McMahon once knew, and more so as a reminder to value what you have and live up to your responsibility: “You should be done waking up on the floor / Come back to earth, kid / Don’t you know you’re not a kid anymore?” The introspective lyrics and the melodic piano arrangement highlight the best qualities of McMahon’s music: a raw self-awareness and sense of beauty that ultimately tie the album together.
“Zombies on Broadway” is both thematically and musically cohesive. Although more ambitious than McMahon’s previous album, it nonetheless features the keyboard-based melodies and thoughtful lyricism that made “Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness” memorable to begin with and is a worthy addition to McMahon’s discography.
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