Review Summary: Manchester Orchestra deliver a home run.
The anticipation for this album, in all honesty, had reached a fever pitch that was once only reserved for often touring mates Brand New. Critics have been saying something along the same lines about Manchester Orchestra since their inception: They're almost as good as Brand New, they have a classic in them but not yet, etc. While fair on some levels, I believe it's unfair to this band; Andy Hull especially stands as a singular talent, his unique and versatile southern croon easily differentiating Manchester Orchestra from Brand New, or any other band. Each album has seen a vast and almost scary improvement over the last, but there was always just the tiniest fault left over. Call it 10 steps forward and 4 steps backward. I'm Like A Virgin Losing A Child became too pop-oriented for its own good, and arguably the same happened with its follow-up, Mean Everything To Nothing: the second half of the album suffered due to meandering common-place indie-pop songs.
Enter Simple Math. Whereas both previous albums were maddeningly close to perfection, this is the album that achieves it. On first listen, or under intense inspection, the listener is bowled over by just how meticulous and flawlessly put together this album is. Like A Virgin was Manchester Orchestra doing indie-pop, and Mean Everything To Nothing was the band trying out grungy-alt anthems; Simple Math is Manchester Orchestra doing anything they want, and consistently hitting it out of the park. This is 20 steps forward and no looking back. There is indie-pop, but it's bolstered with huge arrangements and meticulous atmospherics, and there are a couple tracks, Mighty and Aprils Fool, that harken back to Mean Everything To Nothing's driving guttural power, Mighty easily succeeding at being just as massive and dark as Pride off the predecessor.
The album, excluding the soft and loving opener, "Deer", is split into 2 halves: tracks 2-6 are all urgent and captivating logical progressions from Mean Everything; powerful and memorable, but much more intricate. Tracks 7-10 are all huge, orchestral, moving pieces of music that are unlike anything the band have ever done, exponential progression or not. Both are flawless, and each packed with truly awe-inspiring moments. "Pensacola" is a raucous inverse of the title track; driving, unpredictable, and gloriously big, with the inclusion of both trumpets and gang vocals. "Virgin" is the culmination of this style; it effortlessly builds up while exuding a menacing feel, until the huge and multi-tracked refrain, which is later sung by a children's choir. The title track that follows is everything this album encapsulates. It's meticulous, orchestral and lays down a palpable atmosphere for Andy Hull to show off his always improving vocals and consistently brilliant lyrics. "Leave It Alone" then also follows this track perfectly, a lush and airy number with a truly beautiful and sparse ending. Many may be put off by album closer, "Leaky Brakes." The album since the title track to this point has been unmistakeably building up. Where almost everyone will expect a cacophonous and liberating ending, this is not how this album could end. This album being a loose concept album about marriage and its trials and tribulations, how much sense would it have made if the closer was a piece of climaxing escapism? If you let go of your expectations and accept the track for what it is, it reveals itself to be the prettiest number on the album, with some affecting guitar noodling and more airy atmospherics that ends with Hull wordlessly crooning. In actuality, it seems to fit as the perfect closer to an album as timid and introspective as this is.
Fans and critics alike have been waiting for Manchester Orchestra to deliver their masterpiece, and it's finally upon us. Whether you're a fan or not, it's impossible to ignore how incredibly well thought-out and put together this album is. Everything is brilliant, indeed.