Photo credit: Ben Howell (taken 5/30/18)
It’s funny how time works. One day you’re sitting in the dining hall with a friend talking about the album you both just received after many weeks of preorder anticipation, and the next you’re at a wedding talking with that same friend about the same lead singer’s new solo singles. Then, almost overnight you are 31, in your dream city living the kind of life that just didn’t exist in your wildest dreams a decade earlier.
With time comes change, some good, some bad, and honestly, some pretty uneventful change. Roughly ten years ago, I sat in the Springfield College dining hall rehashing my first few spins of Jack’s Mannequin’s The Glass Passenger, with a friend who I had bonded with over a similar love of the many Drive-Thru Records bands of our youth, especially Something Corporate.
I remember first learning about Something Corporate’s frontman Andrew McMahon forming a new band called Jack’s Mannequin in 2005 on a summer afternoon while I was setting up my MySpace account after an undoubtedly active day working at summer camp. (Author’s Note: Seriously, that’s how I first heard The Mixed Tape. That is also the most 2005 sentence that has and likely will ever appear on this website.)
I fell in love with the familiar sound of an almost orchestral piano returning serve with heartfelt lyrics while electric guitars pinch hit for added effect. For the balance of my senior year of high school that record just felt mine. Then something happened — McMahon was diagnosed with cancer, and the future of a lot of things felt cloudy and doubtful at best for this new band I had just fallen head over heels into thanks to continues social networking.
With any great story, a miracle happened. McMahon recovered, wrote new songs, and headed back into the studio. The resulting album was The Glass Passenger, an album whose effect on me wasn’t fully realized until I saw Mcmahon play the material in concert years later as age and experience took hold.
I’ve long held the opinion that at 21, you think you know quite how the world works. You get the right to drink, vote in an election or two, and suddenly you feel like you can wear the ever-awkward fitting shoes of adulthood. You will misunderstand so many things, often to the extent that won’t become clear until you make a mistake, but ultimately your ship will be righted later on down the line (if you’re lucky).
Your tastes will also change. The movies, books, and albums you consumed then will make much more sense after notching a little more life experience. The Glass Passenger was a problem I couldn’t entirely solve, but I desperately wanted to.
When listening to the album now I cannot help recalling the 21-year-old kid I was then, listening to the album in my reliable, yet ultimately overworked ‘94 Volvo in between trips to cover local high school football on Friday nights. Those first clear-as-day guitar chords of “Crashin” sound like my Junior year of high school and the winding autumnal roads of the Pioneer Valley to me. The album was so sonically and thematically different from Everything in Transit, and I just wanted to crack its code.
Then, heartbreak hits later that school year and some tracks that felt a little distant and indecipherable initially become clearer. “Hammers and Strings” might be McMahon’s best sad love song — or at least that’s what you convince yourself when you’re in the throes of collegiate romantic misery. Is it about his piano that laid dormant during cancer treatment? Is it about the girl from “Konstantine?” I had my theories; each one was better to think about than breakups, make-ups, and everything in between.
Fast forward six years, and I somehow had finagled an opportunity to interview McMahon about his new solo project, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, at a Hartford bar and grill up the street from the vaunted Webster Theater. That old saying about not meeting people you admire because the experience will always disappoint you turned out false, at least in this instance. McMahon was friendly, funny, and engaging. For a young writer, it was everything you hope for when pitching a story. For a fan, especially one as big as I, it was the positive affirmation I needed to know that my years of devoutly following his work were not wasted on a subpar human being.
As Andrew and I walked to meet with his family and head back to the venue, he politely turned the tables on me, the interviewer, with questions of his own. He asked about where I grew up and what my friends were like, as well as my time in college and the friends I met while there. It wasn’t small talk; it was a genuinely great conversation between two people on a sunny October afternoon.
Later that night, I saw McMahon put on an excellent set in a space where I had witnessed countless other artists play before. During that set, McMahon played “Miss California,” a song that had always stymied me. I always thought it was an angrier song, but as it turns out, it’s a love song centered on just how weird marriage is as you lead up to it. The performance was beautiful throughout, but that moment in the set is one that has lingered in my memory ever since.
Hearing “Miss California” and other songs from his storied catalog that night influenced me to brush the dust off some of my old CDs and give them some a few new spins. In doing so, it felt like a lot of things came back around. I looked at who I was when I first heard The Glass Passenger, as well as the person I had become since, and through doing so gained a new perspective on life itself.
Ten years later, my love for the songs on The Glass Passenger continue to evolve. I think the can be said for any great album, or really, anything that connects with you on a deeply personal record. The album might not have had the fanfare it deserves, but neither do most of the movies we love when the Academy Awards roll around every year. The art we consume gets etched into our hearts because of where we are on the road of life when they first enter along that route. They soundtrack what life was like then for us, so that later we may look back and, hopefully, learn something about ourselves. In that way, the records we love often play a role in shaping the people who we are or strive to be someday.
Like time, it’s funny how music works that way.