By Manchester Orchestra‘s standards, a four year gap between albums is pretty lengthy – the time between Manchester albums has been consistently filled with songwriter and frontman Andy Hull‘s solo project, Right Away, Great Captain!, or their collaborative band with Kevin Devine under the Bad Books moniker. Hull had been releasing an album a year in some capacity every single year since 2007, some going for a guy that is still just 30 years old.
However, the gap between 2013’s ‘Cope’ and the forthcoming ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ has seen Hull, and the rest of Manchester Orchestra, slow down ever so slightly. There has still been musical output, Hull and fellow guitarist Robert McDowell collaborated on the soundtrack for ‘Swiss Army Man’, the cult Daniel Radcliffe film in which he plays a farting corpse (yes, you read that correctly). That, in part, bears an influence on ‘A Black Mile…’ as the largely a capella and orchestral approach taken on the soundtrack brought a much different songwriting approach. A perhaps larger influence on the step back from rigorous album and touring cycles was Hull becoming a father over the last two years – subsequently, the subject of fatherhood is unsurprisingly scattered across the record.
In addition to this shift from Hull‘s personal standpoint, and consequently the lyrical content on ‘A Black Mile…’, there’s a more true-to-form shift in the musical approach from the Atlanta four-piece. The band has taken sharp turns musically from album to album with ‘Cope’ representing their most balls-to-the-wall and aggressive work yet – ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’, as Hull put it in a recent interview with Uproxx, is the exact opposite of that record.
In the same interview, Hull mentions that the blueprint for this record, the band’s fifth, was “intensity without volume”. It’s an approach that suits this band down to a tee, regardless of how good the abrasive ‘Cope’ was. Anyone that has ever been to a Manchester Orchestra live show will be able to testify that delivering intensity whilst cultivating and sustaining a captivating atmosphere is one of their strongest suits, other than the actual songs, of course. ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ is Manchester Orchestra tying those strengths together to make an excellent album.
The shift in intention from their last outing is clear from the outset as proceedings are opened with a delicate ode to Hull’s young daughter and wife in the form of ‘The Maze’. A chorus of Andy Hull‘s vocals build up to a glorious crescendo before dropping into the album’s lead-off track, ‘The Gold’. The influence of that ‘Swiss Army Man’ experimentation is there for all to hear from the get-go on ‘A Black Mile…’ and no more so than during the first chorus on what will doubtlessly become a quintessential Manchester Orchestra song as the Hull choir belts out the emotional refrain of “I believed you were crazy, you believed that you loved me“. It’s as if Hull has wrapped Right Away, Great Captain! lyrics in ‘Mean Everything to Nothing’ emotion and covered it in ‘Swiss Army Man’ vocal beauty. Damn, guys.
All this lush vocal beauty doesn’t mean the band have lost their edge, though. There are certainly darker moments and moments that the band unshackle from the refrain; ‘The Moth’, with Tim Very‘s off-beat drumming steering the ship, is almost sinister in its intensity and sounds genuinely different to anything they’ve put out before – ‘Lead, SD’ follows in a similar fashion with Hull unveiling doubts about his ability to be a good father and husband. There is intensity here, there’s also deviation away from the ‘without volume’ mantra. They’re not pulling punches, they’re just landing them differently with the same old impact.
The album’s highlight comes in its centrepiece trio – three tracks subtly tied together by segue track ‘The Sunshine’, and a shared melody. The beautifully subdued ‘The Alien’ showcases just how much the band has developed over the last decade. Sure, they’ve done hushed and delicate swells before, but they’ve mastered it here. The “time has come to take you by the hand, and leave you there alone” line that closes the song will be so ingrained in your head that, once it’s about to re-emerge on the rousing ‘The Grocery’, you’ll be singing it before Hull does.
‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ has admittedly peaked by the latter quarter of the album but that doesn’t equal a lack of quality. For example, fans of Hull‘s solo outings will be quickly enamoured by ‘The Parts’, an essentially autobiographical song about his and his wife Amy‘s early relationship that serves as a reminder of his vivid storytelling prowess, one that comes equipped with a complimentary Britney Spears reference. It’s a nice rest bite before ‘The Silence’ closes the album in a brooding and grandiose fashion.
By no means is ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ stuffed with the hooks, hits and relative immediacy of Manchester Orchestra‘s previous efforts, far from it in fact. Instead, it manages to captivate and surprise without those easy wins, challenging themselves and us, and ultimately coming out victorious.
‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ is released on July 28th via Lorna Vista Records.