By Jake Cordiner (@jjjjaketh)
A Black Mile To The Surface is absolutely amazing in almost every way. It sounds like the album that Manchester Orchestra have always wanted to make: raw, emotional, heavy, beautiful and sad all at once. It is a devastatingly sad record, themes of suicide, absent fathers, depression, and more running through the very core of its 11 tracks. Not that the band have a reputation of releasing cheery albums, far from it, but this is the darkest they’ve went since their sophomore effort, 2009’s stone cold classic Mean Everything To Nothing.
Lyrically, frontman / wordsmith / lovely man Andy Hull has cemented his place as one of the most talented songwriters working today, painting wonderfully depressing pictures of small town American life and the hardships facing families within it throughout the album’s run time. Every single song is a brutal story, not one word wasted. Sonically, this may well be the Atlanta outfit’s most varied effort yet. Not necessarily in terms of the instruments used, but the way they’re using them. On The Sunshine, for example, an almost funky bass line accompanies a shuffling drum beat and an upbeat bit of guitar, it’s a more than welcome departure from their usual sound.
Not that Manchester Orchestra‘s “usual” sound has gotten stale, far, far from it. Songs like The Gold and The Mistake are classic slices of MO gold, it’s just nice to see them venture out from what’s expected of them and to experiment with their sound over a decade into their careers.
Buried within the album is the remnants of Hull‘s original idea for it, a concept album based on the very fictional story of two brothers at odds in the very real town of Lead in South Dakota (this explains why track 4, “Lead, SD” is named as such – curiously, it’s also the only song on the entire record without a The in the title). From what can be gathered on repeated listens, the story goes that one brother got a gun and shot up a supermarket before trying (and failing) to shoot himself, and the other brother failed to stop him.
Now, knowing Andy Hull to the extent we do (see: not very well at all) it’s very possible, neigh likely, that this is all a metaphor for something else entirely, and that no literal bullets were used at all in this sorry tale, but instead metaphorical bullets were fired. Perhaps if Andy Hull hadn’t scrapped the idea of making “…Surface” a pure concept album we would get answers to that question, but that isn’t the case, so we just have to make our own assumptions. It’s a testament to Hull‘s sheer talent that this vagueness isn’t at all frustrating and instead lends itself wonderfully to the mystique of the album.
The rest of Manchester Orchestra are on unbeatable form on A Black Mile To The Surface as well, Robert McDowell lending some of his best fretwork to date on tracks like The Grocery and The Wolf. Tim Very sounds as lethal as ever behind the kit and newest member of Mr. Hull’s Mancunian Orchestra Andy Prince brings it all together with some wonderful work on the bass guitar: it all comes together to form an absolutely stunning listen.
On The Parts, one of the most gorgeous songs you’ll hear this year, Andy sings about falling in love, staying in love and watching his baby daughter be born. It cuts through the sadness and desolation of the rest of the album and stands almost alone: a lullaby written for wife Amy and daughter Mayzie. This has to be mentioned specifically as a way to convey a message that is strangely always made itself clear in the background of Manchester Orchestra‘s back catalogue, one of hope, that everything will be alright in the end. “I still want to know each part of you” sings Hull, in that now trademark cracked Southern drawl of his, and it’s a sentiment that anyone who has fallen in and out of love can relate to. You need to hold on to hope at all times, and Andy Hull has always understood that.
To conclude, this album is absolutely vital. It could (and absolutely should) bring Manchester Orchestra to the front of the fold as titans in both indie and emo circles, somewhere they’ve always belonged.