The Glass Passenger
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Reviewed by David Medsker
Ben Gibbard has since gone back to has day job in Death Cab for Cutie, and the possibility that there may never be another Postal Service album has elevated the band’s sole project, Give Up, to near-mythical status. Jack’s Mannequin, meanwhile, has become Andrew McMahon’s new day job – his original day job, Something Corporate, remains on indefinite hiatus – which means McMahon has lost the element of surprise this time around. That, however, is only half the problem with The Glass Passenger, the band’s sophomore effort. No one would have cared if the album had been a complete rehash of Everything in Transit as long as the songs were good enough; unfortunately, the songs, while serviceable, are not up to par with his last batch, and in fact it sounds as if McMahon is actually playing it safe this time around. Or is it that he’s playing to the fairer sex?
No one would accuse Everything in Transit of being the edgiest album in the world, but the songs had a certain nervous energy – due in large part to Tommy Lee’s role as guest drummer – that provided a welcome kick to even the whiniest songs (see: lead single “The Mixed Tape”). The Glass Passenger, however, is, like most albums these days, produced within an inch of its life, so whatever fun there was to be had in these songs was squeezed out of them in the studio. Production can only impact a song so much, though; if a song begins its life as a mid-tempo ballad destined to be written on a school girl’s notebook, there is little that animated instrumentation can do to change that. Yes, it appears that McMahon has not only accepted that his new band has a loyal female following, but is now playing almost exclusively to that following.
Case in point: McMahon’s vocals have never sounded as “vulnerable” – ahem, pinched and strained – as they do here. He has established that he’s a more confident singer than this, so listening to him struggle to hit notes that are well within his range is maddening. It should surprise no one that this condition exists on the mid-tempo numbers and ballads and not on the few rockers that snuck in. “Suicide Blonde” (one of those Frankensongs that sounds like two songs stitched together) and “Bloodshot” contain none of the pinched vocals that weigh down “Hammers and Strings (A Lullaby)” and “Swim.” The one whine-free ballad, no surprise, turns out to be the album’s finest moment; “Annie Use Your Telescope” contains the simplest melody, a sharp contrast to McMahon’s tendency to stuff his songs to the gills.
Simple and strain-free: this is an approach that would have served McMahon well for his second go-around under the Jack’s Mannequin banner. Does he not know that “I’m Ready,” the most economical song on Everything in Transit, was also one of that album’s best? Or is he aware of it, but resisted the urge to write those kinds of songs this time around because the little girls wouldn’t understand? This could all be pure projection on this writer’s part – it is, after all, his job to call them like he sees them, not like everyone else sees them – but from here, The Glass Passenger is a love letter to an audience he never tried to attract in the first place, while forsaking the ones who were there all along.