Manchester Orchestra’s new album is their most confounding and thrilling work yet, with the most grandiose narrative concepts, production, and arrangements of their career.
Manchester Orchestra frontman Andy Hull promised a scaled down version of his band on A Black Mile to the Surface, a course correction after the overproduced thud of their previous album. If this sounds familiar, it’s because he promised pretty much the same thing three years ago on Cope. The guy can’t not overdo it. As a prolific, teenaged old soul in the gilded age of MySpace emo, he wanted to be Conor Oberst, Sufjan Stevens, and Jeff Mangum at the same time, finding no personal, religious, sexual, or societal crisis too melodramatic to face head on. But while his extreme emoting has remained in the new decade, Simple Math and Cope dulled its impact with plodding, nuance-free nu-grunge, lowering the bar to something closer to, say, a more meaningful Silversun Pickups. So, no surprise that the narrative concepts, the production, and arrangements of A Black Mile to the Surface are the most grandiose of his career. The result is Manchester Orchestra’s most confounding, thrilling, and unintentionally loopy album yet.
Hull’s been given some serious source material, namely the birth of his daughter and co-writing the mostly a cappella soundtrack for the farcical body comedy Swiss Army Man. One might think exposure to that much real and cinematic flatulence might lighten Hull’s mood a little. He has a Coloring Book moment with “The Maze”, a gospel-powered tribute to his daughter Mayzie that would be unbearably cloying were it about literally anything else. But this is Andy Hull. If anything, reaching 30 as a healthy and happily married father with an increasingly influential band has made him even more skeptical as to whether he deserves any of it. “Little girl you are cursed by my ancestry/There is nothing but darkness and agony,” he sings on closer “The Silence,” and any gift has a curse on the receipt: “You lift that burden off of me” and “Let me hold you above all the misery” are from the relatively happy songs that bookend A Black Mile.
The more overtly personal material sits awkwardly among the familial drama that served as the original concept of A Black Mile to the Surface. “Lead, SD” sets up Hull’s scuttled story—that of a pair of brothers feuding over a mining empire. Or something. Hull is extra like that: lines like “Buried with metonymy, decide for me” and “I want to reach above the paradox where nobody can see/Want to hold a light to paradigm and strip it to its feet” are used for choruses. There’s also a lyric that goes, “There are parts of me just stuck inside the grocery/In the produce aisle with the dead beats/Rustling trying to look busy but they’re high like me,” but it’s not in the song called “The Grocery.”
Even if his Hollywood experience didn’t give Hull the ability to pen a coherent screenplay, the soundtrack mostly kicks ass. Hull’s mantra for A Black Mile to the Surface was, “intensity without the volume,” a wise decision after Cope, a record produced with such concussive loudness that they had to do an acoustic remake months later. Yet A Black Mile to the Surface still has the appearance of a big-budget blockbuster and should absolutely plaster its production and guest vocal credits right on the front of the CD like it was a hip-hop record: Nate Ruess from fun. and Grouplove’s Christian Zucconi keep the band rooted in their Clear Channel ambitions. As for producers, getting either Catherine Marks, John Congleton, or Jonathan Wilson involved is a big deal; Manchester Orchestra have all three.
They work best in that fertile terrain between commercial emo and adult contemporary indie: “The Moth” is their self-actualization, throwing ca. 2006 Band of Horses and Brand New in a The Fly-type teleportation machine, coming out 11 years later with dazzling arena-ready emo with biblical overtones and a southern accent but zero twang. Even with its rock-em, sock-em percussion, “The Wolf” is not all that far off from the Mumford & Sons song of the same name.
But there is so much production here—more vocal processing and overdubs than just about any chart pop album you can name. And for the most part, it’s awesome to behold; lord knows how they’ll perform the Pixies-gone-Megatron arrangement of “Lead, SD,” or the 12-sided harmonies that lunge out of “The Moth.” But when A Black Mile should be intimate, the same CGI leaves Hull as an overmatched lead in a Marvel Universe flick, drowned out by the sound effects and saddled with dialogue that’s too mordantly literal or subject to unconscious humor. There’s no way of proving Hull actually cribbed the melody from “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” almost verbatim in “The Mistake”, but there’s also no way to unhear it.
Younger acts like Sorority Noise and Julien Baker have been vocal about Hull’s influence on their work, but this new record reveals something more. There’s a hole in the “rock is dead” argument that can’t be filled by merely rattling off the buzziest indie bands of the moment, or reclassifying pop acts like One Direction or Twenty One Pilots. The dream of the ’90s lives when Manchester Orchestra is on—a time when the Smashing Pumpkins, Hole, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam lorded over MTV and radio with emotionally conflicted, undeniably hooky, and loud rock. If Manchester Orchestra haven’t quite reached that level after A Black Mile to the Surface, it’s not for lack of trying.
Source: Ian Cohen