There is an old catch-22 in music that forces a band to shift from the comfort zone to uncharted territory, leaving behind their loyal fans only to fold at the next level. This phenomenon seems to hold more relevance than ever before; as it has been responsible for the demise of countless groups who either let ambition destroy a great thing, or just flat-out refuse to change. And then there are outfits such as Manchester Orchestra. Back in 2006, Manchester Orchestra made a name for themselves with their poignant debut I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, which broke little musical boundaries, but demonstrated flashes of brilliance and potential. Ring-leader Andy Hull was much of the reason for this promise; a lumberjack-like vocalist with an angelic voice that could charm Charlie Sheen, and a potent lyrical arsenal. A simple indie-rock record, I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child received a great deal of acclaim due to Hull’s affecting and sometimes edgy lyrics, but it was apparent that the band would take some time to gel into a cohesive unit.
Enter Mean Everything to Nothing.
In the three years between the debut and Manchester Orchestra’s sophomore release, the band had cultivated a disparate music direction. The distortion and metronome were cranked up, and Hull reinforced his vocals. Resulting was the raucous fireball that goes by the name of Mean Everything to Nothing, which represented a major step in the band’s progress. Although the record featured straight-forward rockers such as “Shake it Out” and “In My Teeth,” it also demonstrated the outfit’s ambitious flirtations with tracks such as “Pride” and “The River.” With that said, it was time for something bold and elaborate. It was time for Simple Math.
Prior to the release of Simple Math, Andy Hull had indicated that the record was “bigger” than everything the band had done to date, incorporating the personal experiences of his volatile marriage. The magnitude of Simple Math is apparent throughout the album, incorporating string arrangements and horns into what is only a vaguely familiar sound. The warm melodic sentiment of the debut and raw emotional potency of Mean Everything to Nothing are present within the record, but these elements have been evolved to adapt to Simple Math’s grand scheme. The first occurrence of this is demonstrated through the sludgy and foreboding “Mighty,” which accumulates this lingering tension from the strings and Hull’s haunting lyricism: “Your body’s asleep in a wheel-chair, I started rolling you down towards the cars”. A similar harrowing sentiment is established within the record’s middle-section, with “Pale Black Eye” and “Virgin.” The latter is arguably one of the more distinguished tracks on the record, initiated by a children’s choir and an ominous bass-line. “Virgin” in every way seems to embody the breaking point of Hull’s marriage and plays a vital role in the accumulating strain of Simple Math.
Whether the album was designed to portray this or not, Simple Math is weighted toward its second half. While containing the lyrically proficient “Deer” and tone-setter “Mighty,” the first half of the record does not contain the same poignant punch that the latter tracks do, which can be displayed through Mean Everything to Nothing-like rocker “April Fool” and the bright “Pensacola.” While this may be viewed as a negative, the truth is that it actually speaks volumes of latter components such as “Apprehension,” and “Leave it Alone.” Lead single “Simple Math” is lyrically and instrumentally one of the greatest things the band has done to date; riding the instrumental arrangements and Hull’s quizzical lines to an affecting climax. The title-track is not only indicative of what the band had been going for with Simple Math, but also the band’s progression over the past five years.
Despite the shift in sound, Simple Math reveals one facet that is essentially inseparable from the band’s first two full-length releases. Hull has amazed throughout his musical career with his sincere and effortless lyrical approach, no matter if this was with Manchester Orchestra, Bad Books, or even Right Away, Great Captain!. Often simple and to-the-point, Hull’s lyrical brilliance culminated in 2009 with the chilling ballad “I Can Feel a Hot One,” which is one of the more devastating tracks in recent memory. His performance throughout Simple Math is more of the same; assessing blame and showcasing regret in such straight-forward and effective fashion. Opener “Deer” reveals just how personal of a record Simple Math is for Hull, as he dedicates line after line to those who have affected him, including even his fans. “Dear everybody that has paid to see my band, still confusing never understand. Acted like an asshole so my albums would never burn, I’m hungry now and my scraps are dirty dirt.”
For all of its hype, elaborate design, and concept, Simple Math is a difficult record to ultimately pin down and appraise. Unlike the immediate accessibility of I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child and Mean Everything to Nothing, Manchester Orchestra’s 2011 installment is one that will develop with time, due to its layers and concept. Although significant growth has been made in ambition terms, some ambiguity still remains on whether or not Simple Math will top its predecessor, but what is clear is that Manchester Orchestra has crafted another sensational release. Whether or not this is the indie rock classic many were expecting however, is subject to debate. With time and the right formulas, this might just be it.
Stream "April Fool"
4. April Fool
5. Pale Black Eye
7. Simple Math
8. Leave it Alone
10. Leaky Breaks
Manchester Orchestra is an indie rock band which formed in Atlanta, Georgia, United States in 2005. They consist of Andy Hull (vocals, guitar), Robert McDowell (guitar), Jonathan Corley (bass), Christopher Freeman (keyboards) and Jeremiah Edmond (drums, 2005-2010). The band has released two albums - 2006's "I'm Like A Virgin Losing A Child" and 2009's "Mean Everything to Nothing".... read more