Atlanta band’s third album of melancholic musings contains some of their finest songs yet.
Mike Diver 2011-05-06
Great reviews for their previous two albums proper haven’t yet elevated Atlanta’s Manchester Orchestra to the status enjoyed by similar-styled would-be peers like The National and Arcade Fire. But this new set certainly contains songs that are equal to the best efforts of those outstanding bands.
The problem with Simple Math, recorded both at home and in Nashville, is that its 10 songs aren’t all of the level needed propel its makers into the biggest indie-rock leagues. At its heart it’s a tender exploration of losses and uncertainties, weighed down by a plethora of questions posed by lynchpin Andy Hull. Granted, Hull writes from the perspective of a fantasy protagonist – this is a concept record, folks – but you might not realise it on the first or second listen. Over time the tracks gel and a thread can be traced from start to finish; but despite thematic cohesion, Simple Math suffers from inconsistent quality control.
It should be stressed, firmly, that nothing here is bad. Everything is really rather good. But Manchester Orchestra have realised their finest songs to date here, which render what’s around them rather mundane by comparison. April Fool is one such number, a rollicking alt-rocker that combines meaty riffs with Hull hollering like a cathartic chimera of Conor Oberst and Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock. "I’ve got that rock, and that roll," he screams, and with such instrumental clout on his side no listener can doubt him. Virgin is better still: a children’s choir rises in the mix, and when Hull emerges with plaintive clarity, the skin crackles with anticipation of something special to come. And, sure enough, the song is magnificent, words of creation and collapse – "You built this up in one day, to fall downward and rust…" – delivered with a bite that leaves a permanent mark.
There are moments of real beauty, though the prettiest arrangements come complete with necessarily ugly imagery. Take the title-track, for example, a touching-of-tone affair, with wonderful strings, which delivers the line "I want to rip your lips off in my mouth" in its opening seconds. Hull is a fine lyricist, able to make everyday ruminations on relationships utterly riveting. But he’s not consistently complemented by music that really matters, a couple of relatively perfunctory arrangements ensuring that Simple Math is no High Violet-matching masterpiece. But then, it took The National five albums to construct their classic, so time is certainly on this young band’s side. So far, so good, then; and one comes away feeling that the next step Manchester Orchestra take will be into a new dimension of mainstream recognition.