Review Summary: I was amazed how a god could know my first name.
There's no musician I'd rather have a mainline into the brain of – Being John Malkovich
-style, ideally minus the existential dread – than Andy Hull. The Manchester Orchestra frontman seemed to grow up alongside his listeners, from a shaky-voiced teenager singing about love into a confident vocalist capable of marrying branching concept albums with incisive, brutal relationship commentary. Born of You (Demos: 2008-2010)
finds him in the middle of that Venn diagram, crossfading from the bold-letter exhortations of the Mean Everything to Nothing
era to the quieter introspections of Simple Math
. Crucially, where his previous release felt like a compilation of very good demos, Born of You
stands as a fleshed-out, conceptual folk album from front to back.
Even in the era of "Pride" Hull was not averse to indulging his softer side; that inclination gave us possibly the best Manchester Orchestra song, "I Can Feel a Hot One" and b-sides like "It's Ok With Me" which easily stack up to the main album. What sets the work on Born of You
apart from those is that it's entirely solo, without a drumkit or electric guitar in sight. Hull's best lyrics cut as deep sung softly as they do bellowed over crescendoing instrumentals (see: "Sleeper 1972", "I Can Feel Your Pain" and the previous compilation's "When We Were Trees"), and a song like "Born of You" is so simply, devastatingly written that a change from slow strumming to faster fingerpicking feels like a shift in the earth's crust. "The Well" and "The Mark (Oklahoma)" presage the folky, Bob Dylan-influenced songs Andy would go on to explore with the likes of "Left Your Body" and "UFO", and wrestle with his faith and doubt in God in a way that's as compelling as anything Aaron Weiss has ever written. The comparison to Bad Books isn't a bad one overall: a bare demo of "42" even shows up, although far more interesting is the downright groovy "AJC", which adds a piano and electronic beat to some rhyme-heavy vocals and comes out sounding like a proto-"Forest Whitaker". Diehard fans will love to see the final versions of songs that have been kicking about live for years: of these, the gorgeous "I Remember That" is an instant classic, though the adorably upbeat "The Pilot" and chilling interpretation of hymnal "Be Thou My Vision" are no slouch. If there's a weak point to be found, it's in "42" or an early version of Simple Math's unusually clumsy "Mighty", the only entries where you're reminded this is indeed a set of demos and not an album in its own right.
All of this begs the question that if Manchester Orchestra already feels like a shockingly intimate tour of Andy Hull's life – dude once wrote a song for his wife, sang the line "I wish I loved you like I used to" on it and released it to the world – how much more is there for us to see? "Atlanta/Aug/08", following on from two other songs written directly for his wife's ears on the previous compilation, functions as a series of images and places that plays like a supercut of a year in their relationship. But even more than that, Born of You
interrogates Andy's complicated and fractured relationship with God more directly than we've heard in a long time, fittingly for an album positioned between the likes of "The River" and "Leave it Alone". From his earliest recordings about girls with broken wings to concepts about inter-generational trauma and the damage we inherit as a birthright, there's an argument that he's always been writing about the connection between people and what happens when that breaks down. Whether he's searching for a lover, a faith to believe in or a kind word for a friend, the journey is never as compelling or touching as when it's sung by Andy Hull.