Thursday, April 28, 2011

Album Review: Manchester Orchestra - Simple Math

The lyrical rudder of Manchester Orchestra's indie-rock ship has always been front-man Andy Hull, but never has it been so apparent in the band's new album Simple Math. Written as a concept album about the bearded leader himself, Simple Math sees the band performing Hull's most intimate lyrical moments he's written yet, while spotlighting the band's largest compositions to date. There simply isn't room for another "I Can Feel Your Pain" or "I Can Feel A Hot One" on Simple Math; it is far too occupied by Manchester Orchestra's ambitious songwriting, for better and worse of the album’s execution.

How does ambition cripple Simple Math? There’s nothing more dispiriting than an album with mixed intentions, and the southern influence of the quiet opening acoustic piece “Deer” is an illusion of musical intimacy that is not persistent throughout the album's grander goals. “Dear everyone I ever really knew, I acted like an asshole so I could keep my edge on you,” declares Hull’s open heart, an organ that Simple Math reveals to be a complicated and vital piece of his writing. But the small sound is short-lived, as its followers “Mighty” and “Pensacola” pick up right where Manchester Orchestra left off. The large rock and roll hooks of the former ring familiarly with past releases while the latter’s smartly verbose outing is a nice reverie from Hull’s tendency to draw out his melodies. The flashback to Mean Everything To Nothing lasts for one more piece, albeit a contrasting, biting piece of work that witnesses Hull’s vicious words regarding his closest relationships. “I don't care so gouge my eyes/ I'll spend the rest of my entire life blind/ Consequence to you,” cries Hull over the admiration the band has for giant guitar riffs and harmless rock music in “April Fool.” There is a stark contrast struck by the carefree sounds over the dark, spiteful writing.

To Hull, there isn’t any topic closer to him worth sharing than his relationship with his wife Amy, and it’s a topic expressed to almost emotional exhaustion in the astonishing lyrical content of “Pale Black Eye.” Kicking off with quirky guitar work, the song’s content feels harmless enough before Hull eventually calls out, “God damn I'm tired of lying/ I wish I loved you like I used to/ so hold on you pale black eye/ cause’ when I sleep I sleep alone.” The song is the closest listeners have ever gotten to Hull’s most personal confessions, and dramatic, sweeping string work and guitar riffs envelope the closing climax with an appropriate amount of theatrics for such a tale.

While Hull and his band have grown immensely since the short time since their teenage beginnings as musicians began, their need for their larger-than-life musicianship throughout much of Simple Math almost takes away the credibility of Hull wanting to share these personal tales with the listener. It’s difficult to appreciate the dark overtones of “Virgin” when they’re intertwined with what feels like a needless choir arrangement, and the highlight of the song comes not from the dramatics, but from Hull’s frayed vocals sprawled out across the verse in his signature, drastic manner. Manchester Orchestra have proved in the past that they can move their fans with a song as simple as “I Can Feel A Hot One,” but Simple Math is about them becoming much larger than they have ever been heard before. The effectiveness of the string arrangements on the album varies from song to song, ranging from downright chilling on the title track and the ending of "Virgin" to the superfluous inclusions on “Leave It Alone” and "Mighty." It isn’t that Manchester Orchestra have become an incompetent band, they just seem to have rather left the job of constructing and expressing emotional tension to selectively placed string work rather than orchestrate it themselves.

It’s an interesting turn of events when a band can single handedly pull themselves in two directions at once, and Manchester Orchestra has avoided stumbling in the process of doing so. Hull’s lyrics about his work, his wife, and the rest of his most inner thoughts pervade the band’s giant compositions and come together to form the dualistic nature of Simple Math's content and sound. Simultaneously expressing the journey and stories of a difficult marriage while exhibiting the biggest sound they've ever found may have been difficult for the past Manchester Orchestra, but it's lucky for their fans that the band has grown far past their roots. The teenage band you once knew from the Atlanta heat isn’t concerned with being known as an indie giant or a symbol for reviving rock and roll, they're just interested in being the biggest and best they can be in whatever sound they happen to arrive at, with a story in hand to tell their audience.

Track Listing:

  1. Deer
  2. Mighty
  3. Pensacola
  4. April Fool
  5. Pale Black Eye
  6. Virgin
  7. Simple Math
  8. Leave It Alone
  9. Apprehension
  10. Leaky Breaks

Buy it here