Joe McMahon‘s “Another Life” is one of those albums that’s probably best experienced through headphones, while strolling through a park on a late autumn’s day. Now, I need to confess that I took on this album as somewhat of a last minute volunteer, meaning that I listened to this album completely independently of McMahon’s previous work with Smoke or Fire. As a result, I can’t speak to how McMahon’s debut solo outing compares to his previous work. What I can say, however, is that Another Life stands as a powerful and haunting self-contained experience, even if it does repeat a lot of the same tricks.
The album feels like a forty-minute stream of consciousness divided across twelve songs, with each track focusing on the same ideas of time and memory, but doing so through different focuses. “It All Went Black” sets the tone up masterfully, focusing on a peppy drum-beat in tandem soothingly melancholic acoustic guitar licks. Meanwhile, the lyrics address some unknown intimate listener, asking sadly philosophical questions like, “If I could bring you back, what more could I say?” The next track injects a little more energy, opening with a breakneck harmonica and bringing in a faster drum tempo, yet keeps the haunting sense of intimacy with a chorus that’s faintly harmonized by a female singer, almost like the ghost of a lost lover.
From here, the album starts to enter more metaphysical territories, focusing less on a specific events, and more on broader ideas. “Another Life” introduces these realms of higher thinking with lyrics focused on themes of redemption and reincarnation, while the duo of an electric and acoustic guitar are accompanied by the faint rings of a violin. “Chained To Ghosts” creates a wonderfully purposeful sense of frustration as it the progression of the dark and moody guitar riff is interrupted by repeated lyrics like “you get so alone”, positing the listener in the mind of someone totally trapped within a spiral of their own thoughts. “Time Won’t Heal” creates a gorgeous ecosystem of sounds, with a piano melody fading in and out to accompany an acoustic guitar, while distant vocals faintly repeating the phrase “you get so alone, it just makes sense”, leaving the main verses to struggle for dominance over all these other nagging, echoing thoughts.
Ironically, I think the strongest track of the whole album is also the one that sounds the least punk. “Neon Lights” is a three minute wistful journey, carried by flamenco guitar licks and bubbly piano melodies. The lyrics, meanwhile, encapsulate the albums sense of journey and movement, describing the dreams of freedom of someone stumbling through streets at midnight, desperate for some kind of sanctuary.
Unfortunately, for all these powerful songs of folksy philosophy, there as just as money that more or less reuse the same tricks, and apply them to bland love songs. “Left Again”, for all the eerie power of it’s surf rock guitar riffs, loses a lot of potential energy by just repeating the relationship frustrations of the previous tracks. “Viva Las Cobras” repeats the Spanish style of “Neon Lights”, only in subdued way that just feels inferior to its predecessor. Strangely enough, “Black Socks Set Sail”, the most punk song on the album, is also the weakest, with such bland lyrics and repetitive guitar work that it more or less just drifts along for three minutes.
Fortunately, it picks up again for the conclusion, beginning with “Favorite High”. Okay, granted, the twist that the titular high is love is a little clique, but it’s a clique that’s delivered through some otherwise clever lyrical pairings, along with solid southern style guitar hums. Finally, “Great Big Eyes” stands as a solid conclusion, slowing down to a peaceful pace, both in content and form. The lyrics meditate on the relationship between love and reality, describing a romance that can only ever exist in dreams, before rounding things off with the repeated phrase “I hope that I’m never awake”, bringing a melancholic sense of peace to the albums swarming mass of questions.
For better or for worse, “Another Life” is a rambling album. The sum of its parts is something that constantly carries a sense of movement, the only problem is that it doesn’t always move forward. Joe McMahon keeps stumbling backwards and repeating the tricks of previous songs, but ultimately these failings are just forgettable. Overall, this stands as an impressive debut for McMahon’s solo career; it just leaves me hoping he’ll get a little more out of the box, the next time around.