Review Summary: and I, felt love.... again
Circa 2010 or so, "I've Got Friends" is playing on a shitty YouTube rip through my shitty laptop speakers in my room. These are the pre-Spotify days when YouTube is regarded as a kind of acceptable way to find new music, and Manchester Orchestra pop up probably as a related video from a Dear Hunter song or something. But the details aren't important: see, I'm not shallow like the other kids, no, I'm a real deep teenager so I'm all about the feeling, man
– the way "I've Got Friends" skewers its kind of cheesy, kind of sickly pop sensibilities into something a little darker and a little nastier, always underpinned by that $2 keyboard twinkle. Yeah, I could give this a shot.
One year on, and after the combined events of early 2011 I'm pretty damn close to obsession. First The Dear Hunter drop "Deny It All" in anticipation of The Colour Spectrum
, and hearing Casey and Andy on the same song straight up nearly stops my heart. Then Simple Math
is out, and for some reason I rip it track by track from the stream by recording into Audacity – ugh, I know – and start listening. The title track keeps drawing me back to it, like it has gravitational pull: that one bit where the strings soar like an eagle underneath Andy exclaiming what if you believed me, everything is brilliant?
somehow feels like everything is really gonna be alright forever, even as the extreme anxiety that will, starting next year, dominate every second of my social interactions is beginning to creep and creep. But anyway, it's I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child
, their weird, awkward debut that ends up digging its claws in the deepest – the crushing depression of "Sleeper 1972", "Where Have You Been?" and its agonisingly drawn-out coda of religious/sexual desperation, "Colly Strings" with a touchingly honest story of give-and-take love that I'm still years and years out from experiencing, forget anywhere close to understanding. Andy Hull and his pitchy, angsty yelps. Andy Hull and his lyrics, the essence of hyper-sensitivity to every little thing distilled onto paper, all my overreactions and overthinkings and fuckups in their purest form. What more can a highschool kid want?
The less said about Cope
the better, but with a small application of selective amnesia I can confidently declare that Manchester Orchestra have a perfect discography – maybe the only one, although in a few months I'll retract that when I finally wake up to Elliott Smith and all the horrifically lonely nights of listening that entails. The Swiss Army Man OST
comes out while I'm overseas, attempting to 'expand my borders' e.g. figure out why I ever joined a theatre course and just what the hell I'm gonna do with my life, anyway? In between gradually less excited listens to Blink-182's California
and actually doing the stuff I went there to do, I spin the soundtrack over and over, a creepy and comforting sea of human noises making me feel at home while thousands of miles away. "Montage" sticks to me like glue, and I have dreams about conducting my own mini-orchestra of friends, recreating it out of found instruments and flawless soaring harmonies, impressing everyone with my magnificent skills, a brand-new Andy Hull of the youngest generation straight out of Australia. All this stays in my head, naturally, but it's a damn good dream nonetheless. I don't actually see Swiss Army Man until about half a year later, by which time the obsession has waned a little, but when I watch it drunk with a close friend who I never see anymore and understand why track 21 is called "Don't Tell Sarah", I tear up like I'm fifteen and hearing "Girl With Broken Wings" for the first time again.
Then it's 2017, and I'm in my final year of uni with no clue what I want to do and almost as much anxiety about the future as I have about the past. A Black Mile to the Surface
arrives in my inbox, and – well, and that about gets us up to date. From the consistency in track names to the enigmatic cover art, everything about this album seems to suggest a rebranding, but without the self-consciousness that implies – yes, we're moving far away from Cope
, yes, this is pretty close to where Simple Math
left off, but we don't regret a thing or believe in anything but pushing forward. The songs on Black Mile
are expansive, textured, each one like a painting in a distinct style; the layers of Simple Math
are back with a vengeance, but instead of the empty palazzios and antique wooden drawers of that album, we're left with mineshafts. Pitch black, filthy, bottomless. Tempting. "The Moth" isn't miles away from The Dear Hunter's Black EP
, all menacing robotised voices and claustrophobic drum rhythms, while "The Maze" introduces its lovely vocal hymns to a very In Rainbows
synthy warble. "Lead, SD" pairs another huge chorus with verses bursting in every direction with nervous energy – a terrific series of pre-choruses sees Andy near-mumbling words so fast the lines tumble into one another. "The Silence" could be a final pained cry as the world completely collapses, or just a father's heartbreak at not being able to give his child everything; for seven gargantuan minutes, the two ideas are one and the same. The record loops and collapses and glitches back on itself in quiet ways, keys to the story hidden in the lyrics like the gold in them there hills that the characters give up their love and lives to find. There is nothing I've got when I die that I'll keep
appears seemingly as a simple paean to minimalism and the small things on "The Maze", before returning from the opposite perspective as a fucking crushing existential realisation to shake you to your core in both "Lead, SD" and "The Wolf".
Just like Hope/Cope
's only classic moment came when the bridge of "Girl Harbor" stripped away the layers and allowed Andy to stand alone – there is a name for men like you inside the dark
, he practically spat - A Black Mile to the Surface
digs down into the mineshaft and finds that its deepest veins of gold and diamond were always just the most mundane, simple things. Britney Spears posters, yellow SUVs, and years slipping away in a hushed breath comprise "The Parts", the most touching and delicate song Andy has ever written in his storied career. At this point, I realised that despite the breadth and depth of the album the only thing it had ever really been about was the fear of fatherhood: "The Alien"'s gut-wrenching story of alienation and attempted suicide due to an abusive father, "The Maze" alternating between you're a maze to me/amazing
phrases philosophising about the chambers of the human heart, or just Andy straight up saying "is this temporary? I don't think I wanna be a dad" on "Lead, SD", spitting the words out quick like he's ashamed to say them. Finally, "The Parts", where this man – who I could swear was a pitchy, fumbling 18-year-old musician just yesterday, couldn't you? – reminisces on the birth of his child and the peaks and valleys of love. Here the record finally emerges from its claustrophobic caves and whispers of gold and lonely riches, and in the bright light of day it finds simplicity in a child's smile. We all smile back, Andy strums a little on the guitar and hums, and the record spins to a close.