2. August 2017
6 minute read
This band reaches new heights (once again) on their latest album.
I was shocked when I first saw a photo of Andy Hull. I really don't know what I expected the Manchester Orchestra leader to look like after hearing his voice, but I didn't expect a tall man with a beard. In many images, Hull's appearance closely resembles the stereotypical lumberjack, but his voice doesn't have the gruffness that this lazy comparison might suggest. Sometimes tender, sometimes desperate, but always haunting, Hull's vocal performance has always been the driving force behind his band's success.
The Manchester Orchestra, based in Atlanta, Georgia, burst onto the independent music scene in 2009 with their second album.everything means nothing. your first tryI'm like a virgin who loses a child, remains a cult classic in its own right, but it was this second release that showcased Hull's voice, well-written lyrics, and the artistic ability of each band member. The Manchester Orchestra has hgave an annual Thanksgiving concert in Atlantafor several years, which they could not have done without this critical and commercial success.
In the middle are two albums.meaning all to nothingand his latest release,A black mile to the surface. What I would say, however, is that these two points in the band's history are the most important and that this latest album is the best yet. A few days before,I wrote about one of my favorite old bands (Arcade Fire)and how disappointed he was with his latest album. Manchester Orchestra is also an old favourite, but they have outdone themselves once again.
black mileit begins like many other Manchester albums, with Hull's singing voice over acoustic guitar. Hull sings about fatherhood and her daughter, both themes that will be repeated later. As on previous albums, the tempo picks up on track two, a piercing critique of many relationships organized around the refrain of "I thought you were crazy/You thought you loved me."
These two songs aren't the best on the album, which isn't a criticism given some of the ones that ultimately stand out. However, they show many of the lyrical themes and also show that, in many ways, Manchester is still as depressing as ever. One of the band's most famous songs (ineverything means nothing), “I Can Feel a Hot One,” is about panic attacks and the loss of loved ones, and nothing seems to have changed since that first lyrical essay.black mile.
Hull lettering has always been half the equation for Manchester. The music behind those words has always been great, but Hull infuses the guitars and drums with a passionate vocal delivery that's often focused on introspective observation. His themes range from criticism of religion to overt sarcasm to despair at life, and these themes are always beautifully executed. He too has explored various side projects throughout his musical career, but the excellence of Manchester's musical work makes the entire band's releases some of the best in my opinion.
However, with two songs, Hull breaks new ground. The first, "The Grocery", comes halfway through the album. This song has two intertwined parts: one is about a suicide attempt in a grocery store, and the second is Hull's open amazement at the existence of God and religious beliefs. If that sounds too ambitious and dark to succeed, I get it, but the end result is glorious. Consider one of the first lines:
I want to reach beyond the paradox where no one can see
Want to hold a light to the paradigm and set it up
I want to feel like my father, is it easier for me?
I want to know if there is a higher love that I do not perceive
Hull grew up in a religious household, so when he mentions his father, it's a purely religious comment. And wanting to feel how his father felt is related to religious belief. Hull keeps asking those questions throughout the song, but then comes to the following conclusion, accompanied by a cascade of guitars in one of the most moving musical climaxes I've heard in years.
In retrospect, it is now clear
Do you believe him or not?
One can take these texts in different ways. From a non-Christian perspective, this could be a statement that God does not exist. But what is interesting to me is that many Christians would also agree with this statement. Hull has often spoken both positively and negatively about his religious background. However, from other songs that she has written, I think that she is still on the side of faith. I am not an expert on Hull's personal or religious beliefs, but there is enough evidence here to suggest that he does.
If “The Grocery” is the truly amazing first part of this album, the second comes last. "The Silence" is a long, meandering look at parenthood, but in a tone much like the one Hull brought to "The Grocery." The entire song is addressed to Hull's daughter and reaches its climax with the following lines. As in "The Grocery" they are accompanied by a wave of noise that ends the record on the highest possible notes.
Girl you're cursed by my lineage
There is nothing but darkness and torment.
Not only can I see, but you stopped me from blinking
Let me look at you as close as a memory
Let me hold you above all misery
Let me open my eyes and be glad I got here
There is so much to unpack in the lyrics, but what strikes me the most is the balance between despair and hope. The first paragraph falls entirely on the side of despair, as Hull laments her own personal situation and her mistakes, and wishes he could protect her daughter from them. The second, however, follows a very different path. Here Hull returns to simple, fatherly love. He promises protection and finally finds satisfaction in saying, "Let me be glad I came here."
It is perfectly possible to write great music and lyrics that focus solely on positive or negative issues. Artists with exceptional wit can write party anthems brimming with lyrical excellence, and others with the same level of talent can write entire albums of beautiful depressing songs. Personally speaking, however, in my opinion, the most significant projects are those that affect both parties. Hull's lyrics always veered more towards sadness than joy, but there are often undercurrents of hope and love that give her words more meaning. These two songs demonstrate that well, and the combination of Hull's lyrics, voice, and instruments make these two of the band's best songs.
My final assessment is that this album is truly fantastic and Manchester Orchestra deserves more credit than it has received. Hull has always been a master songwriter, but "The Grocery" and "The Silence" are the best songs he's ever written. They don't outshine the other tracks here either, as this album flows seamlessly from start to finish. Every song is worth listening to.
As I was writing my list of the best albums of the year, I know this album will be near or at the top. I haven't listened to it enough times yet to know exactly where it belongs, but it instantly joins a select few on the year's best list. The Manchester Orchestra has just released their best album and there is no better time to start (or continue) listening to their music. I cannot recommend this project highly enough.