Review Summary: No ballads.
Somewhere around the release of "Mean Everything To Nothing", Manchester Orchestra learned they were a rock band. Andy Hull has always been a natural songwriter, "Where Have You Been"" and "Colly Strings" easily stand among the strongest written compositions of Hull's career, but they were simply a precursor to Manchester Orchestra's future meatier sound. "I'm Like a Virgin Losing A Child" was merely a product of the current indie scene, paying tribute to the airy major key tonalities that dominated alternative airways. Manchester Orchestra realized with METN that their potential was more than that. Hull's range was such that could still soar above riffs more akin to Black Sabbath than just Death Cab For Cutie. Manchester Orchestra's identity didn't have to be limited to just being an indie band, they could legitimately rock.
So, after releasing arguably Hull's most emotionally resonant collection of music in "Simple Math", chock full of strings, horns, and even children choirs, it's really no surprise Manchester Orchestra would just be itching to creating a no-frills rock record. Manchester's newest release, "Cope", no doubt about it, is precisely that. It was advertised as such, presented as such, constructed as such, and not surprisingly, plays out as such. Hell, Manchester Orchestra's discontent with the current indie scene has been clear from the get go, "We wanted to make the kind of album that's missing at this time in rock," Hull released in a statement to every music media organization in existence. "Cope" has no time for intricate arraignments, album-wide concepts, or even innovation. "Cope" is simply about, pardon the over-quote, "(brutally) pounding you over the head with every track."
There are a ton of things to enjoy about this simplified approach. The album isn't there so much to intellectualize, as it is there to experience. Hooks are exploding out of every orifice. Refrains are kept simple and easily digestible, often consisting of single repeated sentences and drawn out vowels. Riffs only have one purpose-to be massive. Case in point, "Trees" has the dirtiest riff I've heard in an indie album in years. The formula largely fulfills its purpose. "Top Notch" is likely the most infectious song Manchester has released to date. "Every Stone" is thrilling, managing to provide the mid-album breather while still being almost intense as the tracks surrounding to it. "See It Again" has the best bridge Hull will ever write, made even more madly successful surrounded by the almost discordant nature of the power riffs surrounding it.
But the approach has its apparent weaknesses. Gone is the variety of Manchester's previous efforts, and not even just in tone. The songs are "paint-by-the-numbers" Hull. Only Manchester Orchestra could make "Cope" sound like it does, but for the first time in the band's history, it feels like almost any band out there could have written the majority of the songs. "Indentions" is sort of like "Simple Math's" stand out track "Apprehension", in both placement and tone, except, you know, smothered in riffs. It's an unfortunate example of uniformity. What made "Simple Math" successful was beneath strings and the brass and the choirs, there was an understated, even tender, emotional center. It might exist in Cope, but its oxygen is cut off by the "brutal head beating" that must occur. You can clearly sense the limitations placed upon Hull in the project, every song must have a massive riff, and an infectious hook, no exceptions.
The most fundamental problem with "Cope" is that of an identity crisis. I don't believe most fell in love will Manchester Orchestra because of their ability to have heavier riffs than their contemporaries. It made their music intensely more dynamic sure, but Hull's greatest strength has always been his ability to express raw, visceral, claustrophobic emotion. A project whose thesis statement is essentially "no ballads" is largely flawed at its core. The band is at its best when it finds that balance. Tossing a whole half of their identity out the window is essentially cheating.
That's probably why I enjoy "Cope" fundamentally more when I tack on Dallas Buyer's Club's "After The Scriptures" as the closing track. Here is Hull, his voice almost quivering, a sole electric guitar powerfully and desperately trying to keep up with Hull's narrative. There is no commitment to hooks, no need to establish any sort of identity or fulfill any sort of concept, and emotionally, it's gut-wrenching. It is Hull's songwriting at its purest, and it is everything missing from "Cope." The album does everything it set out to do, but despite Manchester Orchestra making the loudest album in their catalog, they have never felt so distant.