Andrew McMahon was finally home.
The founding member and frontman of piano-punk group Something Corporate, he’d spent the later part of his teens touring and recording with his high school bandmates. The group evolved from McMahon’s garageband, Left Here, becoming a label-supported fixture during the golden age of pop-punk’s radio dominance. Billboard chart successes and minor hit singles were proof of the group’s infectious and timely sound, but tour fatigue led to an indefinite hiatus. The group toured throughout 2004 but soon after went their own ways.
That’s how McMahon found himself back in sunny Santa Monica, a surprisingly-seasoned 21 year old with the world at his feet. Not one to waste any time, he holed up in his hometown and started to write.
He'd already been writing songs that were inconsistent with Something Corporate's greater sound, saving them as the band toured relentlessly through the US. Initially, none of the songs were intended for release. They were more personal than the ones that Something Corporate had ridden to fame - whilst fans continue to clamour for live renditions of beloved rarities such as “Konstantine” and “Cavanaugh Park,” their lighter material had always defined the group’s devil-may-care attitude. Pop-punk lent itself to more carefree lyrical content, a fact exemplified by groups such as Sum 41 and Blink-182.
Penning songs for a then-unnamed project, McMahon begun to brainstorm names. He entertained the idea of ‘The Mannequins,’ but eventually decided that too many groups used the definitive. He landed on ‘Jack’s Mannequin,’ a name inspired by an old friend who struggled with childhood leukaemia, after writing eventual standalone single "Dear Jack."
Unfettered by genre or expectation, McMahon began to write himself into the next great alt-rock niche - emo pop. Despite McMahon’s penchant for emotional vulnerability, Jack’s Mannequin existed within the subculture more by affiliation than anything else. Piano-pop had little social movement behind it, and the subject of McMahon’s tracks, combined with the grunge-infused instrumentation in tracks such as “The Mixed Tape” and “La La Lie,” made Jack’s Mannequin an alt-rock outfit with inklings of emo influence. The group would go on to play the Vans Warped Tour in both 2008 and 2011, a legendary cross-country show that helped launch the careers of mid-2000s mainstays such as Paramore, My Chemical Romance, Blink-182 and Fall Out Boy.
Though the project was initially a solo venture, McMahon eventually built a band around his new compositions. He linked up with Something Corporate guitarist Bobby Anderson, with whom he'd been performing since mid-2003, and also reached out to LA-based session musician Jay McMillan and local bassist Jon Sullivan. Despite the growing scale of McMahon's snowballing 'side-project,' the record retained a very personal perspective - it dealt with McMahon's real-life return to LA after years on the road, the rekindling of relationships and breakdown of romances that came with the readjustment. Jack's Mannequin was unmistakably McMahon's solo vision: he wrote every track on the group's first two records, ultimately collaborating on just four of the group's 35 album tracks.
Late into the writing and recording of the album - which went on for nearly two years - Burbank-based label Maverick became interested in distributing the project. That company, founded by Madonna in 1992, has represented artists such as Alanis Morissette, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj and Pharrell Williams. Their interest was a powerful cosign for McMahon, who was then little more than a former member of a moderately-successful alt-rock outfit. Though McMahon had spent much of his early twenties penning the group's debut Everything In Transit, the story of Jack’s Mannequin was only just beginning.
In a bizarre twist of fate, McMahon was diagnosed with leukemia on the very day he finished mastering the record. He announced the diagnosis on June 6 2005: he’d fallen prey to the very affliction that Jack had battled so many years prior.
“This Wednesday my doctors officially diagnosed me with Acute Lymphatic Leukemia, otherwise known as (ALL). I know this news will be met with both shock and concern and want you all to be aware that this disease, though difficult, is highly treatable and completely cured in most cases. I feel extremely strong in spirit and I am ready to meet this head on and beat it. I am a natural born fighter with an immense amount of love and positive energy inside me. I am not only confident but I am certain I will come out of this a stronger human being with a greater understanding of life and my place in the world.”
Leukaemia, a form of blood cancer, is treatable. This doesn’t mean that it’s always survivable - treatment involves undergoing rounds of chemotherapy to destroy cancerous white blood cells before transplanting restorative bone marrow. Luckily for McMahon, he found a bone marrow donor in his sister, Katie. In yet another cosmic coincidence, August 23, 2005 became one of the most significant days of McMahon’s life - he underwent the bone marrow transplant that would ultimately save his life as Jack’s Mannequin released their debut record. On his blog, he wrote:
“And so on this strange Tuesday in August, the most perfectly bizarre coincidence of my life will take place. The culmination of years of work and inspiration now falls on the same day that I will be transfused with stem cells from my sister to fight the monster huddled within my marrow. I can say for the first time that I am not afraid, and while this is a feeling that can undoubtedly change with time, I feel cradled by this universe and the immense love that comes from it.”
On the first track released after his transplant, standalone single “The Lights and Buzz,” McMahon offered perhaps his most straightforward reflection on the ordeal:
“It’s good to be alive…”
Though McMahon was busy recovering from cancer, Everything In Transit took on a life of its own. It debuted at #37 on the Billboard 200, scoring a host of favourable reviews from critics and fans alike. A music video for successful single "The Mixed Tape" worked around McMahon's treatment, inserting him amongst a collage of animated backdrops as to minimise his presence.
McMahon shot a second video for "The Mixed Tape" in early 2006, set to coincide with his guest appearance on then-legendary teen drama One Tree Hill. The track was featured in S03E15 and appeared on one of the show's many influential soundtrack issues, another hefty cultural cosign. Like eventual thematic relative Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill lent heavily on the use of popular music as a way of furthering narrative.
Though second single "Dark Blue" failed to chart, it eventually achieved Gold Certification in 2013, eight years after its initial release.
The Glass Passenger
It took two years for McMahon to start writing for another record.
The group’s sophomore album, The Glass Passenger, dove headfirst into McMahon’s unexpected and life-changing leukemia diagnosis. The title itself makes reference to McMahon’s post-cancer fragility, as later illustrated on the People and Things track “Hey Hey Hey (We’re All Gonna Die)”:
Keep you eyes on the road,
I’m the glass passenger...
The album boasted more refined production: tracks such as album opener “Crashin’” worked around the piano, abandoning the comparably lo-fi edge of their ragtag debut. It brought more emphasis to McMahon’s skills as a pianist, a spotlight he’d earned by way of critical acclaim and respectable sales. In terms of assembly, it was essentially the group’s major label debut - Everything In Transit had cost McMahon two years of his life and almost the entirety of his savings. Nothing says ‘passion project’ like sinking $40,000 into a then-independent record.
This shift in quality was, at least in part, due to the involvement of revered mixing engineer Chris Lord-Alge. Lord-Alge’s catalogue includes Prince’s exceptional Batman soundtrack, Tina Turner’s seminal Foreign Affair, and Carly Simon’s Coming Around Again. Whilst this track record stresses his professional successes, his recognisable name is proof enough. Really, how many mixing engineers can you name?
“Swim” is a power-pop affirmation almost painfully ripped from McMahon’s own experiences. Whilst it’s built as an inspirational reflection on perseverance, the lyrics themselves allude to the trials that he squared off against. Simultaneously overblown and understandable, it’s the battle cry of a man who fought off a life-threatening disease in an unexpected time: his early twenties. Lead single “The Resolution” also makes explicit references to the wake of McMahon’s cancer - images of his ‘burning body’ and the “wreckage of the crash” echo that August 23 blogpost. Revisiting the sentiments put forward in “The Lights and Buzz,” McMahon begins the hook with a outright cry:
“I’m alive, but I don’t need a witness /
To know that I survived...”
The most clearly autobiographical track on the record is the incredible eight-minute cut “Caves,” a symphonic piano-rock account of McMahon’s time in the UCLA Medical Center. It lifts lines directly from the August 23 blogpost in which he discussed his then-imminent bone marrow transplant. The image of collision used to illustrate the transplant itself is an expression of both medical and metaphorical meaning - whilst McMahon used the word to explain the process, he also described the procedure as the ultimate moment of his ensuing “crash course with destiny.” This image appears in the song’s gradual crescendo:
“Out here /
I watch the sun circle the earth /
The marrows collide in rebirth…”
Though it’s hidden on the B-side of the record, “Caves” might just be McMahon’s most visceral and confronting track. It encapsulates the entire ethos that consumed Jack’s Mannequin as a project: the crushing incidence of the diagnosis, the painful recovery that ensued and the sudden, inspired burst of life, manifest in McMahon’s continued creative drive. When asked about the song in a Reddit AMA, McMahon offered a few insights:
“It started as a dream I woke up from in the middle of the night. That piano melody was in my head. I wrote the first two verses basically half asleep at four in the morning.”
“Caves was a tough one to finish. I recently listened to passenger and was shocked how honest it was, when truthfully I felt so turned around and confused while I was making it. Nothing really drove me to write it, I just write whats [sic] in my head and the recovery process was brutal and all encompassing.”
Though McMahon’s own medical history inspired some of the album’s most potent cuts, the album continued Everything In Transit’s exploration of decaying relationships and life on the West Coast. Tracks such as the criminally underrated “What Gets You Off,” a spacious and suggestive slowburner, continued the group’s brand of sunbathed alt-rock romance.
The Glass Passenger also explored darker recesses of loneliness, often abandoning the upbeat, sunkissed palette to craft more traditional piano ballads. “Hammers And Strings (A Lullaby)” is a quietly anthemic reflection on disillusionment, drug dependency and alienation, an anomaly and a standout rolled into one. It seemed that the trials of serious illness had pushed McMahon into the darker recesses of West Coast life - the need for perseverance, the want of belonging and the endless pursuit of happiness all make appearances on his sophomore record.
Despite the tonal shift, the album debuted at #8 on the Billboard Hot 200, a position which would signify the group's commercial peak. They toured in support of then-stars The Fray before continuing their own worldwide Farther From The Earth tour. Jack’s Mannequin had reached the apex of their success.
The People, The Things
The group's third LP, People and Things, is their most polished. It features more conventional songwriting and less lofty conceptualism, a collection of palatable, single-ready tracks. In the announcement video for the record, McMahon again reflected on his illness:
"The next part was unexpected: I got sick. So sick that six years later, it's the one thing that people talk to me about the most. People called me a lot of things after I got better: a fighter, a hero, an inspiration. I didn't see it that way. I made a record about that. I hated that record for some time. It was a reminder of what sickness had taken from me: my youth. I love that record now."
Having covered a youthful hometown breakup and an embittered return from the brink, what did Jack's Mannequin have left to explore? The answer, it turned out, was the world around them. People And Things is an album unfettered by loose narrative or heavily autobiographical themes. It's more listener-friendly and pop-indebted than the group's earlier material, with tracks such as lead single "My Racing Thoughts" and album closer "Casting Lines" amongst some of JM's most accessible.
In a way, People And Things is a surprising finale - despite his own remarkable experiences, McMahon elected to lean into his songwriting abilities and create an album largely divorced from the group's accidental overarching arc. Despite this inspired choice, the name 'Jack's Mannequin' carried baggage it could never overcome, and as a result, the band was slowly coming to an end.
The outfit had become irrevocably tied to an unexpected period of McMahon’s life. He was older now - starting a family, beginning his cancer fundraising efforts and moving into his 30s. Whilst touring their third record, 2009’s People And Things, McMahon announced that Jack’s Mannequin was coming to an end.
“I foresee an end to the usage of that name. I don’t know that it’s doing for me what it used to, in the sense that Jack’s sort of really represented a freedom from something. And a really free approach to creating things that now is certainly wrapped up in a whole lot of turmoil and tumult in a very difficult time in my life. And to acknowledge that, I certainly think at some point I’m going to have to find a way to shake that loose. And I think to some extent that might mean retiring the name.”
The breakup was hardly that - both drummer Jay McMillan and bassist Mike Wagner continue to play with McMahon’s new pop project, Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness, and guitarist Bobby Anderson makes occasional appearances at local shows.
… By July
The illustrated billboard atop Everything In Transit’s distinctive album art reads: “This Is A Story.” Indeed it is - but it’s not the one that McMahon set out to write. Jack’s Mannequin is an outfit that mirrors its frontman’s unexpected and dramatic personal trails in each of its three albums, from its coincidental namesake to the incredibly personal reflections spurred by his diagnosis.
It's a time capsule of an artistic endeavour. The band was played and contained to perfection, a thrilling exhibition of a young artist's most formative years. The lessons of perseverance, evolution and creation within are irrevocably tied to the group's history as well as their music. Jack's Mannequin continue to be one of the century's most maligned pop outfits, fusing pithy introspection and catchy songwriting. They existed on the periphery of alt-rock during its most successful era, quietly prospering in the shadows of genre giants such as Fall Out Boy and Paramore.
Those shadows, however, seemed to offer welcome shade. In documenting his unlikely cancer battle through a brief, cohesive string of resonant records, McMahon has more than earned a place in the annals of pop music history.