Review Summary: You mean everything to nobody but me.
A lot can change in what seems like a fairly short amount of time. Deceptively American quintet Manchester Orchestra had humble beginnings as the brainchild of one Andy Hull, releasing their debut record in 2006 entitled I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child
, garnering a small but solid following in the wake of it. The album centralised itself around themes of belonging and introspective desperation, with Hull’s timid, unsure lyrics and vocals at the centre of the twangy indie pop. What happened inbetween then and now remains a mystery to anyone but the band themselves, but what the Orchestra have returned with is, to use an old chestnut, a different kettle of fish entirely.
Mean Everything to Nothing
, the second LP from the band, sees the kind of reinvention that leaves precious little of the foundations that defined the band’s sound previously, but leaves enough to recognise it’s the same band. Having said that, it’s a difficult task trying to envision many of these numbers as a part of the band’s past. Gone are Hull’s uneasy confessions and pleas such as “I confide in wolves at night”, “Don’t let them see you cry” and “Won’t you rescue me"”, sung quietly and unassumingly. No, sir; this time around it’s all “I am the only son of a pastor I know who does the things I do”, “I’ve got friends in all the right places” and “I need a little more…because enough is never enough”.
If you think they sound different on paper, just wait until you hear Andy singing them. Previously limited in his ability and dynamics, Mean Everything to Nothing
sees his vocals keep its higher range, but loaded up with plentiful new attributes. At practically any given point on the record, he’ll be scowling, roaring and spitting his way through volatile, aggressive and demanding lyrics; bold in their ideas and masterful in their execution, particularly come chorus time. There are moments that are just plain scary in terms of how emotional Hull gets in his delivery, whether his way about it be raucously extroverted (“Shake It Out”, “Pride”) or shockingly, contrastingly quiet and introverted (“I Can Feel A Hot One” and hidden track “Jimmy, He Whispers” the best examples of this). These tracks are obviously deeply personal works with layers of purpose and meaning, and in turn have brought out the very best of Andy as a frontman, a singer and as a writer.
He’s not alone in this serious maturing and development of sound. The rest of the Orchestra maintain the tight interconnectivity that kept I’m Like A Virgin
consistent, but have turned up their amps and broadened their horizons with an array of new guitar tones, chirping keyboard lines, darker-sounding licks, droning arpeggios and a drumming backbone that would make Max Weinberg proud. There is a cohesiveness amongst the five-piece that is especially noticeable on Mean Everything, and there is perhaps no better an example of that than the album’s finale, “The River”. A heart-wrenching ballad, the band encapsulate their newly-realised sound at both its most hushed and at its vast, roaring loudest; complete with gorgeously arranged piano, flowing guitar picking and subtle, moving orchestration. Possibly the best demonstration of how far Manchester Orchestra have come since I’m Like a Virgin
, this track is one of many highlights to be found on the records’ eleven-track entirety.
The fact that an album that will be remembered as one of 2009’s essentials has come from a band that it simply didn’t seem possible of is proof alone that this year can only get better from here on in. At his most vulnerable, Hull whispers a confession on “The River”: “I think I talk to you best when I sing”. On Mean Everything to Nothing
, Manchester Orchestra have given us one hell of a conversation.