When Manchester Orchestra‘s I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child came out in 2006, both fans and critics weren’t exactly sure what to make of it. The record was certainly ambitious – hell, just look at the title – but the songs weren’t quite epic enough to back up frontman (then teenage boy) Andy Hull‘s philosophical meanderings. Add to this, once I played the record for a friend who subsequently asked if it was the new Saves The Day.
But fast forward three years, thousands of tour miles and a generous helping of musical development, and Manchester Orchestra have returned with Mean Everything To Nothing (released April 21 on Sony), a record that feels fully cooked on all fronts. And it tastes, or rather, sounds stunning.
The band’s centerpiece has always been Hull’s emotive (read: vast understatement) vocals, varying from a near-whisper to some serious throat shredding, all tied together by the notion that the dude really, truly means it. And that doesn’t change on Mean Everything to Nothing – if anything, Hull is even further out front to the benefit of the band. The 22-year-old bearded Southerner is a hell of a frontman, from both the performance and lyrical standpoint.
His voice has a distinct Isaac Brock-ian quality in both its variance and its almost mysterious beauty. But where Brock seems to acknowledge his own over-the-top-ness, Hull’s bleeding-heart and often bleeding-palm (religious imagery abound) sincerity makes the music that much more affecting.
The songs on Nothing rock like more complex and layered Pinkerton-era Weezer tunes with significantly more emphasis on faith and love than sex and paranoia. But that comparison alone would rob the record of much of its aural depth – throw in some early My Morning Jacket and fellow Southern gloom-rockers Dead Confederate and the record starts to take shape.
After the twee-pop with meaty guitars opener “The Only One,” “Shake It Out” seems like the real beginning to the album, opening with frantic guitar stabs and Hull singing so frenetically I can picture him looking nervously around the room and pulling his own hair out as lines like, “I am the living ghost of what you need / I am everything eternally / God, just speak!” shoot out like stray bullets. Then, the levy bursts and Hull screams the song’s title like a man possessed while his band somehow manages to furiously keep up the pace with huge percussion and muscular walls of guitars.
“In My Teeth” is Manchester’s take on In Utero-style Nirvana, and, believe it or not, it works. Marvelously. The song’s intro even sounds like the type of riff Cobain would’ve loved to write, not to mention the dun-dun (pause) dun-dun guitar drops during the verses were lifted from “Lithium.” Still, the similarity isn’t grating – if anything it’s refreshing, a return to form for angry-at-God guitar rock.
Nothing isn’t all Hull’s flailing around like a rag doll, though. “I Can Feel a Hot One” is a gorgeous, slowly-plodding ballad, where Hull builds and deconstructs his melody in each verse, never gaining too much intensity but steadily pushing his thoughts forward. When he sings, “To pray for what I thought were angels / Ended up being ambulances / And the Lord showed me dreams of my daughter / She was crying inside your stomach,” whether you believe him or not, think it’s trite or beautiful, it’s near impossible to feel nothing.
And when Hull sings, “I’m gonna leave you the first chance I get,” on the sprawling, 11-minute “The River,” you’d be a fool not to believe him. The scary part is figuring out if he’s singing to God, to his audience or to his own oft-tortured, scared and brilliant mind.
JamBase | Well Orchestrated
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