Review Summary: Manchester Orchestra delight and frustrate with their third full-length.
Kids’ choirs. Was there ever a time when they weren’t creepy as hell? It’s strange really; doesn’t quite make sense. Kids are cute, innocent, harmless. Get a chorus of them together however and suddenly the rascals will have you running for the hills. Which is exactly what the little tykes have been deployed for in Manchester Orchestra’s third full-length Simple Math
. Following ‘Virgin’s lyrics about building houses with blood and crucifying fire, and set amongst booming doomsday guitars, the kids arrive to really nail home the fact that epic shi
t really is going down, and yes you should be scared. But, with that, Hull and co overdo it, and almost end up embarrassing themselves. On the whole the track is good enough to salvage their dignity, and this is certainly the peak of the album’s over-the-top nature, but it is this overindulgence which plagues Simple Math
Problem is, there’s such a strong desire to make nearly every track skin-tinglingly epic or cathartic that what the band end up losing as a result is their delightful charm, their sense of fun, their rock n’ roll attitude, and, almost, their individuality. These are Manchester Orchestra’s most appealing strengths, and they should play to them. Just listen to when they do: ‘April Fool’ doesn't take any prisoners, beginning almost immediately with a feisty guitar riff and in no time Hull lets himself become completely absorbed by his own lyrics, screaming and delivering those special moments that were so frequent on Mean Everything to Nothing
. It’s catchy as hell, furiously fired-up, packed with attitude, and filled with enough fuck
-yes moments to open a fuck
-yes store three storeys high. Simply put by Hull himself, it’s “got that rock and that roll!”.
But “that rock and that roll” is just too infrequent a visitor on Simple Math
to reach the bar set (in fairness toweringly high) by their previous effort. That’s not at all to say the album is bad, or a failure. Even disappointment would be excessive. There’s just a niggling sense of underachievement. ‘Mighty’ could be a deliciously destructive stallion of a track, but its weak lyrics, over-the-top orchestration, tedious song structure and uninspired ending leave it second fiddle to a track like METN
’s snarling ‘Pride’. Then take ‘Leave it Alone’; a decent track which had the potential to rival ‘I Can Feel A Hot One’, but it falls short with its unremarkable song progression and melodramatic string section. Too frequently on Simple Math
is there a sense of over-calculation, over-indulgence and the over-dramatic.
I don’t blame Hull for wanting to create something special. The honesty in his lyrics is incredible; a commitment to confession which borders on the religious. So of course he’s going to want to create music that he thinks justifies the level of emotion he’s pouring out. In ‘Pale Black Eye’, with heart-wrenching regret Hull delivers the line “God damn I’m tired of lying / I wish I loved you like I used to”, knowing full well the wife who the lyric is about is going to hear it. That’s crazy. But then the music itself just develops into this blockbuster kind of sorrow, with its manipulative strings and choir-like ‘woos’, and the sincerity so evident in Hull’s voice evaporates from the music surrounding it. It’s all so frustratingly dense and histrionic that it’s no wonder ‘Leaky Breaks’, the album’s closer, sounds so exhausted (which, funnily enough with room to breathe, is one of the album’s best tracks).
Of course, there are moments when they strike that perfect balance of the epic, the enjoyable, and the sincere, and no more so than on title track ‘Simple Math’. Here, the band make the full transition from ‘easy to like but impossible to love’ to ‘impossible not to love’. The song writing is wonderfully crafted, progressing slowly but remaining thoroughly engaging, like watching the sparks of a fuse burn before the bomb goes off. And that bomb, oh my. Essentially, it’s a song that manages to take these new elements that have been so uncooperative and implement them perfectly into the band’s sound, taking them that one step further to greatness. Remember what I said about this band being capable of a classic? Well ‘Simple Math’ is their first. Just a shame about Simple Math