Manchester Orchestra struck the big time with their sophomore effort Mean Everything to Nothing, propelling them to new heights, astounding acclaim, and sold out tours. Their new found success was well deserved, as that album proved to be one of the year’s best. Oft considered to be a near masterpiece, the question remained… could Manchester Orchestra top the record, or would they forever be looking to recreate the magic of that time. The band has answered the question with Simple Math, an emphatic statement proving these guys just keep getting better. The Atlanta, GA based quintet is pushing boundaries previously explored in every direction, demonstrating there is little they can’t do in the process. Frontman Andy Hull, arguably one of this decade’s finest storytelling songwriters, is more vulnerable and earnest than ever, as Simple Math revolves around the concept of his near-divorce and the resulting emotional turmoil. The album itself however, doesn’t lament for too long, as the musicianship really has grown into a beast of another nature, pushing the album into enormous crescendos and haunting compositions. Flirting with prog rock structures and the gorgeous addition of strings on more than half the album, Manchester Orchestra continues to stun their fans with new tricks and unexpected twists. Simple Math offers a far less immediate quality than the massive hooks of Mean Everything to Nothing, but repeat listens are increasingly rewarding.
The album opens with the slow drifting “Deer,” a somber exploration of Hull’s inner thoughts over an ominous whirring backdrop and woozy guitars. “Mighty” is just as the title suggests, arriving with big overdriven guitar tone, a pulsating rhythm, and a particularly scornful vocal delivery. There isn’t much of a hook, but that doesn’t stop the band from bursting into the song’s bridge with an epic string section, igniting the fuse and gloriously exploding. “Pensacola” has a happy-go-lucky melody offering what is certainly the most accessible moment of the album. Hull sings, “I am the greatest man that never lived, and now I never sleep, I never lost a fight, but never knew I started one the same,” as he describes the inevitable effects of constant touring on his marriage. The song bursts into an unexpected gang vocal chant, propelled even further with a brief horn section and layered guitars.
“April Fool” strikes with a Led Zeppelin-esque guitar line and a commanding vocal performance from Hull as his gorgeous melodies wander into raw enthusiastic hollering. Drummer Tim Very explodes with a deep bruising rhythm, and the entire song encapsulates all the ingredients of a future classic. Hull shouts, “I’ve got that rock and that roll, I’ve come around this time to set fire to your homes,” and its apparent, Manchester Orchestra mean business. “Pale Black Eye” offers an interesting stop-start rhythm and a slow rise towards intensity, thrust to greater heights with the reappearance of the string section. After touring with Biffy Clyro last year, it is highly possible their penchant for combining strings and odd time signatures has rubbed off on Manchester Orchestra, evident at the song’s finale. “Virgin” is without a doubt the album’s finest moment, and one of the strongest songs released so far this year. The haunting hook is doubled with Hull joined by a choir of children, offering a creepy “Another Brick in the Wall” type vibe. The song builds with gradually dense layering and the guitar’s grungy tone only fuels the fire. Strings take control during the bridge as the choir roars in with the magnificent hook before Hull lets loose on his own.
“Simple Math” is a beautiful introspective ballad built upon sweeping strings and angular echoing guitars. Hull’s vocals sound powerful and hopeful as he questions the necessity of their quarreling over a monstrous post rock structure that blasts from soft to loud and comes to a crushing crescendo just before release. “Leave It Alone” dives back into the heart wrenching depression of the whole ordeal, opening amid cloudy distorted vocals that emerge victorious with the introduction of the rhythm. Hull sings, “So take me alone, cause if it’s not with you, I’ve got no place to go,” and his desire to reconcile becomes evident. “Apprehension” is easy going as lead guitarist Robert McDowell channels his inner David Gilmour, resulting in a spacey atmospheric riff. The song is aggressive yet serene and calming, while multiple layers shine individually but fit together clutter free. The lazy aura of “Leaky Breaks” closes out the album with a gentle and somewhat apathetic ballad, a respite from the grandiose nature of everything leading up to this point. McDowell’s stinging guitars sit stunningly suspended in air just beneath Hull’s vocals as the band wind down to Simple Math’s close.
Manchester Orchestra has once again offered up a strong contender for album of the year, and their meteoric rise that began a few years ago only looks to continue.
Virgin by Manchester Orchestra
April Fool by Manchester Orchestra