Manchester Orchestra, Simple Math
By adam mcdonald
May 18, 2011
If you've read anything about Manchester Orchestra in the past five years you've probably come across phrases like “mature beyond their years” or “old souls.” I've always thought the same thing myself, but it's really mind boggling to know that Simple Math was created by five guys that aren't even a quarter century old yet.
The third full-length from the Atlanta quintet had high expectations to fulfill. Their sophomore effort Mean Everything To Nothing was widely regarded as one of the top albums of 2009. The band seemingly didn't stop touring for nearly two years in support of the albumdeemed even more sincere and raw than their 2006 debut, I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child.
Simple Math has been billed a concept album about a three way conversation between Hull, his wife and God. Hull was already one of the more brutally honest lyricists out there; just listen to METN closer “The River,” a beautiful and desperate plea of repentance. In an interview with Spinner.com., Hull said, “With this album in particular, I've never written as autobiographically as I have. The other albums I was writing about kind of larger and less specific concepts, where this album I'm writing about much larger concepts but in great specific detail.”
Hull's statement is proven true as soon as Simple Math starts. You know that you’re in for a different kind of ride than Manchester has taken you on before when you hear "Deer," a subtle track that lacks the energy you might expect from an opener. Amid soft, twangy guitars are lyrics that find Hull regretful of his missteps of "abusing even those I thought immune.”
If I could give you one word to describe what sets Simple Math apart from previous releases, it would be “strings.” The band has finally lived up to the second half of its name with several songs featuring string arrangements that range from chill-inducing (“Mighty”) to gorgeously epic (“Simple Math,” “Leave It Alone”).
On “Pensacola,” the band expands on the pop sensibilities that peeked through on the self-titled Bad Books album (Manchester’s 2010 collaboration with singer/songwriter Kevin Devine). Hull’s rapid-fire vocal delivery followed by a lively gang-vocal sing-along makes this one a definite standout. They even throw in some horns for good measure.
“April Fool” is the only song on the album that would have been at home on Mean Everything To Nothing. This is Manchester at their most comfortable. The muscular guitars and bombastic chorus show that even when this band is treading familiar ground, they do it one better than they did before. It's hard not smile when you hear Hull yelp, “I've got that rock and that roll!”
On the other end, “Virgin” finds Manchester Orchestra at their most ambitious. The song begins with an eerie spoken word sample that ushers in an even creepier children's choir. The group-sung chorus is quickly cemented into your brain. It all builds to an amazing climax featuring sharp horns and the aforementioned creepy children. It's truly unlike anything Manchester has attempted before but the results are impressive.
Knowing the lyrical concept, you'd think it would be easy to decipher the meaning of the tracks on Simple Math. However, the beauty of Hull's writing is that he still leaves room for you to make what you will out of his words. Some lines could hold dual meaning, such as, “I'm tired of lying; I wish I loved you like I used to” (“Pale Black Eye”).
Lead single and title track “Simple Math” is a cinematic centerpiece with its haunting strings and outstanding melody. It also finds Hull questioning the truth he's been presented. “What if it was true and all we thought was right was wrong?” he earnestly asks.
If I have one complaint about Simple Math, it's that album closer “Leaky Breaks” isn't the epic ending that I would have envisioned for this record. It's a more low-key affair with a fuzzy 70's sounding guitar lead and a nearly whispered first verse that will no doubt draw comparisons to Modest Mouse. It wouldn't be the first time Manchester has been compared to any number of other bands (Nirvana, Weezer, Built To Spill) but what I've always loved about them is that they are so much more than the sum of their influences. All good artists take inspiration from other things, but Manchester Orchestra does so in a way that is never derivative.
Simple Math is an album that showcases a band realizing just how much they are capable of. While it may not be remembered as their best record, I'm convinced that Manchester Orchestra will only get better with age.