Review Summary: Manchester Orchestra prove that there is in fact a way to fix it.
In blunt terms, Cope
was a mess. Manchester Orchestra's determination to play so-called "brutal" rock on that album started getting to the point of blind stubbornness when every song started following the exact same formula without deviation or respite. Nowhere was there to be found the clever lyrical confessions and vocal intimacy of Andy Hull that characterised the first two albums, nor the sonic diversity and space which allowed the following two albums to soar. Cope
was, pure and simple, a disappointment, and the ever self-aware Georgian boys appear to have acknowledged and furthermore righted their wrongs with the surprise release of Hope
In essence, the re-imaginings on Hope
are entirely different beasts than their Cope
counterparts. This is undeniably for the better as the listener is allowed to focus on the truly exceptional part of Manchester Orchestra's sound: the stunning catharsis that Andy Hull delivers time after time, song after song. The emotional power of the songwriting is truly magnified on Hope
as the majority of songs are given their due with a liberal dose of delicate instruments. Lightly plucked acoustic guitars, shivering strings, simple piano and gorgeous female harmonies invariably provide the perfect backdrop for Hull's powerful voice, truly at its finest when he sings with his distinctive, unparalleled intimacy. Hull wisely reworks some of the lyrics, which occasionally slipped into pure nonsense on Cope
, to create some fantastic lines much more akin to his first and best efforts as a wordsmith on Nobody Sings Anymore
and Like a Virgin Losing a Child
. In fact, with lines such as "God is watching tonight/So choose whichever side you like," one could almost believe that Andy Hull circa 2006 has put his pen to paper once again. "It's okay to lose a limb/when they get too heavy", he sings on the beautifully restrained "Trees", and it's a line that rings true and chimes on a deeply personal level in a way that Hull has rarely accomplished since Means Everything to Nothing
. "Trees" is one of the few songs on Hope
to disregard guitar completely, instead relying entirely on keys and strings to create a tangible atmosphere of beauty tinged with just the slightest unease. This steadily pervasive mood is the unifying factor on every song on Hope
, whether it is born entirely from the strings and piano or reinforced further on more upbeat songs such as "Top Notch" and "The Mansion" with the occasional burst of electric guitar.
On three songs in particular Manchester Orchestra truly showcase their talent and willingness to adapt, making you wonder why they even bothered releasing the originals in the first place. "Choose You" is not the best song on Hope
but it presents itself as the finest act of re-imagining, as the generic, lazy, middle-of-the-road rock song that we heard on Cope
is completely transformed into a stunning piece of cinematic beauty replete with all of Hope
's finest aspects. A beautifully swelling piano refrain and guitar sets the stage for the soothing vocal harmonies, allowing a chorus melody to flourish that was previously choked to death by horribly-mixed guitars. Single "Every Stone" is another example of the eschewing of guitars completely, this time in favour of a quiet piano section that gradually builds into, of all things, a superbly Antlers-esque closing section complete with horns. Finally, "See It Again" may be the most un-Manchester Orchestra song that the band have released to date, an entirely a capella
piece that relies singularly on the aforementioned vocal harmonies to bring its emotional weight home with full force. The album doesn't quite have a complete success rate – even the most gorgeous of harmonies can't salvage that lacklustre chorus that drags "All That I Really Wanted" straight into the ground – but in every case the renditions are effortlessly superior to their counterparts on Cope
Of all the beautiful music to be found in abundance throughout all of Hope
, however, there is only one moment where Manchester Orchestra prove to their audience that they still have the capacity to make some of the best music in whatever scene you lump them into. And the Georgian boys, once again proving their ability to be extremely self-aware and cognisant of their past mistakes, cleverly allow this moment full prominence on the album. This is achieved in "Girl Harbor" when the piano, backing vocals and strings drop abruptly out of the mix leaving Hull alone with his guitar to sing directly to the listener, heart to heart, no longer a singer and an audience but just one human being talking straight to another, just like it was in the good old days. And, just like in those good old days, it's difficult to not get a little teary-eyed as Hull's voice cracks and wavers on the lines "And I know your faults/I know the way you write them off/I don't want anything to do with it no more." This exceptional moment is then wisely followed up by the return of the full band, leading to the brilliant chorus of "You waste so much time." I'm reminded forcibly at this moment of all the dynamic shifts that Manchester Orchestra used to use to such heart-stopping effect: the explosion into gang vocals and full-band instrumentation in "La-Di-Da", the gradual build and build and build then drop into near-silence of "I Can Feel a Hot One", that goddamn chorus of "Simple Math", and so many other moments that characterised the band and made them stand out so far from all their peers. While no song on Hope
is quite worthy of being placed alongside any of those mentioned, it would still be a mistake to ignore these re-imaginings as the next step for Manchester Orchestra, into new and hopefully increasingly interesting musical territory. No self-respecting fan could be slighted for leaving this aptly titled record with a bit of hope for the future.