Manchester OrchestraI was shocked when I saw a picture of Andy Hull for the first time. I don’t really know what I expected Manchester Orchestra’s frontman to look like after hearing his voice, but I wasn’t expecting a large man with a beard. In many pictures, Hull’s appearance closely resembles the stereotype of a lumberjack, but his voice has none of the gruffness that this lazy comparison might suggest. At times tender, at others desperate, but always haunting, Hull’s vocal delivery has consistently been the driving force behind his band’s success.
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Manchester Orchestra, hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, burst onto the indie music scene in 2009 with their second album, Mean Everything to Nothing. Their first effort, I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, remains a cult classic in its own right, but it was this sophomore release that showcased Hull’s vocals, the well-written lyrics, and the artistic capacity from every member in the band. Manchester Orchestra has hosted an annual Thanksgiving concert in Atlanta for several years, something they wouldn’t have been able to do without this commercial and critical success.
There have been two albums between Meaning Everything to Nothing and their newest release, A Black Mile to the Surface. What I’d like to posit, though, is that these two points in the band’s history are the most important, and that this newest album is their best yet. A few days ago, I wrote about one of my old favorite bands (Arcade Fire) and how much I was disappointed by their newest album. Manchester Orchestra is also an old favorite, but they have outdone themselves yet again.
Black Mile begins like many other Manchester albums — with Hull’s crooning voice layered over an acoustic guitar. Hull sings about fatherhood and his daughter, both of which are themes that will return later on. Much like other previous albums, the tempo picks up on the second track, a piercing critique of many relationships organized around the chorus of “I believed you were crazy/You believed you loved me.”
These two songs aren’t the best on the album, which is hardly a critique given some of the later standouts. They do showcase many of the lyrical themes though, and also show that Manchester is still just as depressing in many ways as they have always been. One of the band’s most famous songs (on Mean Everything to Nothing), “I Can Feel a Hot One,” is about panic attacks and losing loved ones, and nothing seems to have changed from this initial lyrical sample on Black Mile.
Hull’s lyrics have always been half of the equation for Manchester. The music behind these words has always been excellent, but Hull infuses the guitars and drums with a passionate vocal performance, often focused around introspective observations. His topics range from religious criticisms, to open sarcasm, to desperation at life, and these themes are always beautifully executed. He has explored various side projects as well throughout his musical career, but the excellence of Manchester’s musical work makes the full-band releases the best in my mind.
On two songs in particular though, Hull breaks new ground. The first, “The Grocery,” hits about halfway through the album. This song consists of two parts interwoven — one is about an attempted suicide in a grocery store, and the second is Hull’s open wonderings about the existence of God and religious faith. If this sounds too ambitious and dark to possibly be successful, I understand. But the end result is glorious. Consider one of the opening lines:
I want to reach above the paradox where nobody can seeWant to hold a light to paradigm and strip it to its feetI want to feel the way my father felt, is it easier for me?I want to know if there’s a higher love oblivious to me
Hull grew up in a religious household, so when he mentions his father, this is a purely religious comment. And wanting to feel the way his father felt, refers to religious faith. Hull continues to ask questions like these throughout the entire song, but then comes to the following conclusion, accompanied by cascading guitars in one of the most moving musical climaxes I’ve heard in years.
Looking back, it’s obvious nowYou believe him or you don’t
One can take these lyrics a number of different ways. From a non-Christian perspective, this could be a statement to say that God doesn’t exist. But the interesting thing to me is that many Christians would agree with this statement as well. Hull has often spoken about his religious background, in both positive and negative ways. From other songs he has written though, I believe that he still falls on the side of belief. I’m no expert on Hull’s personal or religious beliefs, but there is enough evidence here to suggest to me that he does, in fact, believe.
If “The Grocery” is the first truly amazing part of this album though, the second comes at the very end. “The Silence” is a long, meandering look at fatherhood, but in much the same tone that Hull brought to “The Grocery.” The entire song is addressed to Hull’s daughter, and hits its peak with the following lines. Just like in “The Grocery,” they are accompanied with a wave of noise that ends the album on the highest of possible notes.
Little girl you are cursed by my ancestryThere is nothing but darkness and agonyI can not only see, but you stopped me from blinking
Let me watch you as close as a memoryLet me hold you above all the miseryLet me open my eyes and be glad that I got here
There’s so much to unpack in the lyrics, but what strikes me the most is the balance between despair and hope. The first paragraph falls solely on the side of despair, as Hull bemoans his own personal situation and failings, and wishes that he could shield his daughter from them. The second, though, follows a much different path. Here, Hull returns to simple, fatherly, love. He pledges protection, and at the end, finds contentment by saying “let me be glad that I got here.”
It’s entirely possible to write excellent music and lyrics that are focused around solely positive or negative themes. Artists with exceptional wit can write party anthems that ooze lyrical excellence, and others with equal talent levels can write entire albums full of beautiful “downers.” Speaking personally though, the most meaningful projects in my eyes are the ones that hit both sides. Hull’s lyrics have always strayed more toward the side of sadness than happiness, but there are often underlying currents of hope and love that give more meaning to his words. These two songs show this well, and the combination of Hull’s lyrics, vocal delivery, and the instrumentals make these songs two of the band’s very best.
My final evaluation is that this album is truly fantastic, and that Manchester Orchestra deserves more acclaim than they have received. Hull has always been a master songwriter, but “The Grocery” and “The Silence” are the best songs that he has ever written. They don’t overshadow the other tracks here either, as this album flows seamlessly from start to finish. Every song is worth listening to.
When I wrote my top albums of the year list, I know that this album will be near or at the top. I still haven’t listened to it enough times to know where exactly it falls, but it immediately joins a select few in a shortlist for best of the year. Manchester Orchestra just released their greatest album, and there’s no better time to start (or resume) listening to their music. I cannot recommend this project enough.