Review Summary: Manchester Orchestra's first stumble: an uncharacteristically homogeneous outing, but enjoyable nonetheless.
It's more than a little unfair to judge a book (or an album) by its cover, but sometimes this angle is quite telling. In the case of Cope
, Manchester Orchestra's fourth official full-length album, many similarities between the album's cover and the music contained within can be observed. It's a simple piece of artwork, a punchy and effective one, but perhaps a little blander than fans are used to and not nearly as imaginative as work from years past. Unfortunately, this analysis can more or less be directly applied to the purpose of reviewing the album. Cope
is simple and punchy to be sure, chalk-full of barn-burning rock tunes, but stacked up against their previous work, it falls comparatively flat.
One of the main issues facing this album is the production, which is often dull and suffocating. Hull and co. seem as comfortable as ever in their niche, using thick sounding guitars and bombastic percussion to carry their tunes forward, but these two elements seem to clash here. At any moment when the guitars get louder than usual, the sound of the drums almost completely disappears underneath the weight of the guitar tracks to the point that it's impossible to hear anything but the occasional crash cymbal. Furthermore, the tone is almost identical on every track. We all know that Manchester Orchestra do the thick, heavy, and crunchy aesthetic very well, but the lack of variety attempted from track to track here is emblematic of the larger issues to be had with this album. Remember 'Pride' from 2009's Mean Everything To Nothing
, that absolutely bone-crushing piece of sludgy indie-rock, which has continued to stand out as one of the band's best songs to date? Imagine an album comprised of eleven slight variations of that motif, and you'll have a pretty accurate image of Cope
in your head. And while 'Pride' most certainly rocks a large amount, the lack of variety on display here really holds this album back from having a distinct place in Manchester Orchestra's catalogue - a feat accomplished by each album leading up to this one.
That's really what all this criticism of Cope
boils down to: a surprising lack of variety. One of the reasons behind this band's rise to prominence over the course of their first three albums was their penchant for occupying a vast array of places sonically, and never settling into an unaltered groove. It's a more homogeneous album than fans have become accustomed to; the album is essentially one song repeated over and over again. And though it's a pretty good one song, the album suffers from a lack of replay-ability due to the band's refusal to exercise diversity.
Lyrically, they seem to be threatening to jump the shark as well. Andy Hull's lyrics have been growing more ambiguous as the years wear on, but on Cope
they have begun to flirt with too
ambiguous. The band seems largely lost trying to keep up with the cryptic words of their enigmatic frontman, and more often than not end up returning to their bread-and-butter to play it safe. This creates a pairing of lyrics and music that can be called "enjoyable" and little else: nothing is so powerful that it sticks on one listen. This is in direct contrast to, say, Simple Math
, an album that displayed the band's natural talents for composing soundscapes that fit eerily well with the tone of the lyrics. "The invention of the ship was the invention of the shipwreck
" from 'Choose You' is, for example, almost a great lyric, but it requires some elaboration, which is never offered, and the band hints at nothing with their usual thick and heavy guitar riffing. It's quite nearly a powerful moment, but instead comes across as uncertain and therefore ineffectual. Occasionally Hull's cloak of ambiguity lowers for a moment or two and a truly great lyrical moment is found, like on 'Girl Harbor' when Hull muses "I don't say what I mean but I mean what I say
." It's a simple, somewhat vague lyric that works nonetheless, but this is one of a few truly clear lyrical moments on Cope
And yet, with all this lukewarm analysis, there in bold, red letters sits a positive rating at the top of the page. You see, despite all of the predictability, the lack of variety, and production which is occasionally suffocating, Cope
remains a great, highly listenable album. It's overflowing with catchy rock runes, each one a piece of quality in its own right as a stand-alone track. But something is lost in the grouping together of songs here, or rather, very little is gained. As a complete album, Cope
is leagues below the band's best work in terms of vision and bite. They've certainly added several notable hits to their impressive discography ('Top Notch' for example, with its punchy guitar riffing and anthemic chorus, or 'Mansion' with its…uh…punchy guitar riffing and anthemic chorus…), but it's less of a dizzying ride than any of their stunning masterpieces. The spirit and drive still exists within each song on Cope
, but it unfortunately feels much less focused, even directionless, when compared to their best work. Manchester Orchestra have made their first slight misstep with this, their fourth full-length album, but it's nothing more than a stumble: easily righted and hardly worth worrying about for too long. The spark is still there; let's just hope that they can focus it more directly on their next album and return to their status as one of the most powerful and visionary rock bands still active today.