Review Summary: Manchester Orchestra head in a new, louder direction with Mean Everything To Nothing, showing further evidence that an indie rock classic is not beyond them. But this isn't it.
It didn’t take long for Mean Everything To Nothing
to really snatch my attention. Thirty seconds into opener ‘The Only One’, rosy-faced Manchester Orchestra frontman Andy Hull deliriously blurts “I am the only son of a pastor I know / Who does the things I do”. Hold up, now. What exactly is it that you do, Mr. Hull, that makes you so different from every other son of a pastor? You think you’re a rebel do you, unshackled by the laws of religion chained onto you by your tyrannical father? Well, speaking from experience (I am ‘the son of a preacher man’ myself), I can tell you that smoking pot, getting pissed and having sex before marriage is not impossible in the world of lil’ Reverends. Hell, my brother’s outside rolling a spliff right now. But it doesn’t take your dad sporting a dog collar to know that this is the stereotype of all pastor’s sons (and daughters). So I immediately hypothesized the following: Hull is either 1. naïve and ignorant, 2. isolated and boastful, or 3. so self-aware and clever he pretty much has his tongue stapled to his cheek. After finishing Mean Everything to Nothing
, there is no doubt he is the latter.
For those unacquainted with the work of Hull & Co., Manchester Orchestra have released two other albums prior to this one, the second of which – I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child
– cementing their place in the world of indie pop/rock as the
band to watch in the coming years. And they have certainly warranted that tag with this album. But there are differences – or, what I like to call (cue baritone) ‘Evolutions Of Sound’
. While Like A Virgin
floated along like lonely driftwood caught in a river of sadness, with the occasional moment of epic loud intensity creating sporadic rapids, Mean Everything to Nothing
wastes no time and crashes through like a tidal wave on which everyone can ride. Depression has been swapped for aggression, quietness for loudness, accuracy for power. Every track utilizes grittier riffs, harder-hit drums and angrier vocals to maximise the hands-dirty appeal, with ‘I Can Feel A Hot One’ and the bonus track being the only exception. In fact, it is only the bonus track which features acoustic guitar, a far cry from the ‘I Can Feel Your Pain’s and ‘Don’t Let Them See You Cry’s of Like A Virgin
This louder, more aggressive approach is the perfect setting to house Hull’s new vocal talents. The man has come on leaps and bounds with every release since the band’s debut, and Mean Everything to Nothing sees him making his greatest strides. Bursting out of the gates on ‘The Only One’ he makes it known immediately that he’s been doing some intense larynx workouts, while ‘Shake It Out’ further reinforces his improved range of not only tone, but emotion. It is this track, too, which really puts the spotlight on Manchester Orchestra’s new style. Angrier riffs, denser instrumentation, Hull almost breaking into screams – and the structure, as with most of the tracks, is excitingly unpredictable. That’s not to say they can’t still create a damn good pop song – lead single ‘I’ve Got Friends’ starts simply enough with pianos and infectious guitar before charging into their new-found sense of rage, heavy on the electric guitar and one killer hook – “I’ve got friends in all the right places / I know what they want and I know they don't want me to stay”. ‘You, My Pride and Me’ marks the first third of the album with a big fat exclamation mark. Dirty, snarling riffs, intimidating sparse bass drums, Hull threatening to rip his vocals to pieces. This is not the Manchester Orchestra you’d take to meet your parents.
Funnily enough, though, the best track on the album is the one that does manage to restrain itself. What’s more, it’s the track that sounds most similar to Like A Virgin
. ‘I Can Feel A Hot One’ sees the strongest lyrical work on the album, too, with Hull describing his struggles with faith in genius but shattering terms – “Manna is a hell of a drug / And I need a little more, I think / Because enough is never quite enough / What’s enough?”. It’s lines like these that really showcase Hull’s incredible lyrical talent, and evidence the fact that he’s clipping at the heels of the Lacey’s, Weiss’ and Bemis’ of the religious lyricist world. Sparse drums, melancholic violins, soft pianos and Hull’s cracking, soulful vocals harmonize to create a song that will have smiles swelling and tears forming left right and centre. And it is this track which begs the question, what if they chose to create more songs like this? Which in turn begs the appeal that they do so next time. ‘My Friend Marcus’ could and probably should have followed this quieter approach. Sure, it has a fantastic, insurgent chorus but the lyrical content of child abuse would seem to demand a more gentle, sensitive style. There is also a slight concern for complete lyrical accessibility. There can be no denying that tracks like the fantastically impassioned ‘The River’ are going to affect those with some sort of faith more than the out-and-out atheists. Lines like “Oh god I need it / I was wrong again / Take me to the river / And make me clean again” are so steeped in religion that they may be hard for some listeners to stomach.
Mean Everything to Nothing
is two steps forward, one step back for the Atlanta quintet. It shows the band experimenting with a new direction, and while it has been fun heading down that path, I hope they don’t continue down it for fear of losing their way back. I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child
showcased the band’s brilliance for constructing gentle, intensely quiet, and impossibly moving songs but they completely sidestepped that talent with this album, something that may be a hindrance to its lasting power. I do believe that an indie rock classic is not beyond this band. But they’re going to have to combine all their talents if they want to achieve that. Mean Everything to Nothing
is an excellent record, but no better or worse than its predecessor. It’s just different.