Manchester Orchestra finally fulfills their potential with their latest album
It’s been 11 years since Manchester Orchestra broke onto the scene with their impressive brand of storytelling and melancholy. But throughout the following three albums, they never fully hit a stride. There have been some incredibly moving tracks along the way, though they’ve had a few duds on each album as well. Their 2014 album Cope was monotone and left me a little skeptical about what will come next. Andy Hull put some of these worries to rest with his excellent scoring of a fantastic movie called Swiss Army Man. I’d like to say he answered my concerns but truth is, A Black Mile to the Surface goes far beyond that: It openly mocks me for having them at all.
Having been a fan of their work since the start, I can safely say this is unlike anything they’ve ever put out. It’s easily their best-tracked album; it flows seamlessly from start to finish with no hiccups or songs that sound like re-hashes. Every weakness the band has had has been addressed while maintaining and building upon their strengths. It’s gorgeously arranged, cohesive, and marked by strong transitions. Every moment is monumental, every build-up emotional, and every release earth-shattering.
Everything about this band is melancholy; from Hull’s wiry voice, lovely guitar licks bursting into relentless distortion, and the heavy-hitting lyrical content. This feels like a return to Mean Everything to Nothing in a way but it’s still a complete departure from that sound and a testament to how much this band as grown. None of these songs fit on any of their other albums and they couldn’t have been written at any time but the present. As Hull becomes a father, he reflects on his own family life and the lives of those around him. It’s different from his old work on similar topics purely because of how immediate this feels. The storytelling is much more personal and there is true sense of anxiety surrounding this entire record.
We kick things off with “The Maze,” a song about the turbulent act of being a new father. It’s about finding new wonder in the world, which is fitting considering we find new wonder in the band at the same time. The quiet, reserved nature of the track is similar to how they kicked off Simple Math with “Deer,” though the message isn’t quite as singular. There is both anxiety and excitement to be found here, much like the rest of the record.
“The Moth” rocked harder than anything off of Cope. It’s a great example of Andy Hull’s songwriting style and an all-around honest representation of the record. Dark keys hang over the introduction, similar to how “The Wolf” uses them as a cloud hanging over the chorus. It’s an ode to bridges burned and turning a new page. It’s preceded by “The Gold,” whose catchy and interesting melodies callback to their debut record. There’s great pain in the delivery of the line “so lose your faith in me,” and it’s one of the strongest hooks on the record.
“Lead, SD” is the only track not starting with “The,” and could be regarded as the title track in that way. Everything on this album centers on this song. Hull starts off the song saying there’s a part of him stuck inside the grocery store, wandering around the produce section while high. There’s a part of him that’s stuck in that moment before but he can’t let that man get out anymore; he has to be something different. It’s a complicated track that’s emphasized by harrowing vocals and bouts of noisy dissonance. Hull is at the top of his lyrical game here as the band makes a strong case for this being one of their best tracks to date.
Whereas Lead was chaotic and intense, the Alien is staggeringly different. Its beautiful harmonies echo out as Hull sings of familial chaos, familiar ground for the band. It’s emotional, dark, and a representation of the burdens and scars of our youth that we all bear. The song, released prior to the album, has a stunning video directed by Daniels. The production is gorgeous, truly exemplifying the calm before the storm, and the decision to follow up Lead with The Alien is brilliant.
There are songs that make you want to jam and shout and move along with them. Songs booming with energy and passion that something takes control of you and gets you lost within the brilliance. “The Grocery” is not one of those songs. It’s the kind of song that leaves you frozen in its wake, in awe of its spectacle. To compare it to “Simple Math,” whose closing minutes are a highlight for the band, still does it a disservice. The piano and acoustic guitar arrangement here is elegant and lovely. It’s truly a stunning song.
Hull’s brutal honesty masked within his poetry has been known to stop people in their tracks. “I Can Feel a Hot One,” of course springs to mind but he’s done this again and again throughout his career with Manchester Orchestra and other projects. “The Mistake” is essentially an entire track written with that intention. It’s one of the strongest tracks on the record, completely drenched in melancholy from the opening reverb to the closing line, “everyone here feels sorry for us.” It’s contrasted heavily by the penultimate track, which ramps up the spacious vocal production considerably. It’s Hull and an acoustic guitar in a way that is beautiful and haunting in a way that he’s always specialized in. “The truth will start to creep in if you let it,” stays with us after it’s spoken. The song keeps going on yet that line remains in the back of your head, occupying every vocal break.
Hull projects his anxiety on the closing track, “The Silence.” It’s a build-up of the album’s themes; of fatherhood, of failing to live up to your own expectations, mental illness, fear, and finding a purpose. He accepts who he is and his own perspective with the line “there is nothing you keep, there is only your reflection.” This line about fatherhood kicks off an incredible, theatrical instrumental arrangement. Everything is released in these final moments. It’s visceral and terrifying. The narrative regarding an abusive father, a shooting, and the fear of passing along genes of “darkness,” truly makes this an album of horrors in a way, especially in the way that it leaves off with having to accept this and trust you can do better than those that came before you. “Let me open my eyes and be glad that I got here,” Hull sings as the epic arrangement fades into a more pleasant send-off for the album, eventually leaving us with only silence.