Review Summary: I hope eventually you'll see what you've been turning me into; it's all for you.
Simple Math's lead single and title-track is one of the most unequivocally epic pieces of rock music released in recent memory. It begins in sombre territory, moving through doubt and conviction to a place of apparent and monumental resolution, all within the space of 5 minutes. As lead singles go, it was both a brilliant and incredibly dangerous selection: it was so good that expectations soared into a place that was quite arguably unattainable. But for one second, let's look at 'Simple Math' with a slightly more critical eye. It's orchestral, but it doesn't hold its strings aloft as a building-block, or as a gimmick. It builds, but rocks back and forth unpredictably. Its video was indisputably huge, but the world it was set in was grounded and gritty.
What I'm getting at is that approaching Simple Math
the album with the attitude that it had better all be as clean
as the cinematic majesty of its title-track is likely to reap mixed rewards, since 'Simple Math' the song is certainly the most straightforward cut of its record, the smooth brick in a wall of jagged stones. But there is something about these songs, something haunting, which beckons repeat listens in abundance. Simple Math
is the type of album that, off the back of its sincerity and passion (much in the same vein as 2009's Mean Everything To Nothing
, only greater), you will find yourself returning to over and over again, sanding down the rough edges and surprising musical jolts to get to the real essence of why it's all so great.
Where Mean Everything To Nothing
closed with its own, inferior (although still superb) version of 'Simple Math' in 'The River', its successor shirks the responsibility of providing that anthemic last-track gratification in favour of the notably down-tempo 'Leaky Breaks', which - in spite of its possessing a crescendo of sorts - is nevertheless as much of an anti-climax as you're ever likely to experience, particularly after a string of songs as anticipatory as that between tracks 7 and 9. But the effect of that closer is not, even on first glance, disappointment. Quite simply, it's enigmatic; it only reveals half of itself immediately. One of the criticisms of Everything To Nothing
was the simplicity of its second half, but here it's easy to pass off half the tracks as the opposite.
But really, much of Manchester Orchestra's southern rock is the same as ever; the dirty riffs of 'Mighty' mimic those of 'Shake It Out' but the tension has grown tenfold, the payoff being Andy Hull's declaration that "it's not like I was devious or boastful!" and a wordless chant which brings the song to a pulsating finish. The structure is evasive, the lyrics hard-hitting, the moments of unrestrained release just as fantastic as they ever were. It matters not whether a song is bubbling with terror like the sinister 'Virgin' (complete with eerie children's choir) or bouncing with apparent abandon like 'Pensacola' - the constants are those three things: sharp changes of direction, ardent story-telling and perfectly-placed climaxes.
Although situated largely in the seemingly mundane where its predecessor concerned itself (perhaps excessively) with abstract universalities, Simple Math
might actually be the superior record. Its centrepiece, as with Mean Everything To Nothing
's 'I Can Feel A Hot One', is the most explicit illustration of the band's overflowing emotion, but the same level and intensity of fire can be found even on its most flippant tracks. But it's all about the last line of 'April Fool', which up to that point has been a wall of heaviness difficult to penetrate. When Andy Hull sings: "I don't care if you and I will take the rest of our entire lives - I'm patient here for you," he's hoping you're in it for the long haul too. On close inspection, everything really is brilliant.