Monday, May 2, 2011

Simple Puzzles Lead to Simple Math

Oh man, I’ve been waiting on this Manchester Orchestra album release for quite a while now. After hearing “I’ve Got Friends” by complete accident—a click-through from another YouTube video—two years ago, I grabbed a copy of the full album that spectacular single came from. As it ended up, Mean Everything to Nothing is one of those rare albums that I’ll put my full support behind. It’s perfect—every note, from beginning to end.

I liked it so much that I got my hands on the preceding album, Like a Virgin Losing a Child, which was unbelievably underwhelming. Seems around this time these Atlanta natives were more focused on being the next Death Cab for Cutie and not forging their own path. I still don’t listen to that album because, well, it’s just not that good.

So over a year ago, as I began the anticipated countdown to what would eventually be titled Simple Math, I read that Andy Hull (lead singer) said that the band’s intention was to make albums that were consistently better than the last, and if they were not happy with the results, they’d just split up. That’s a lot of pressure to put on your band after releasing one of the greatest albums of the decade!

Now they’ve leaked their own album a week ahead of the official release date, on the Columbia website. Fans need to put together a puzzle that reflects the geometry-inspired cover, placing objects representing individual songs in the correct order on the provided spaces.

The album’s opener, “Deer,” is an acoustic ballad reflecting Hull’s experience in the music industry, an introduction to the highly introspective album. The second track, Mighty, introduces the rest of the band, featuring much of the sound that we remember from Mean Everything. Inventive guitar sounds and a steady, comfortable rhythm drive the melody of this track, but it’s no “Shake it Out.”

Other parts of the album, including the light and bouncy “Pensacola,” show a different vocal side of Hull not seen since Like a Virgin Losing a Child. It becomes apparent very quickly that Hull is moving forward in an autobiographical manner. “April Fool” marks the point where the album really kicks off and starts moving with the feel that lead guitarist Robert McDowell has really tried to keep up his end of the deal and progress musically, taking chances in ways he never has before. The album’s climax, “Apprehension,” paints a portrait of shameful excess:

How could I misconceive I was owed something radically radiant?

Overall, it is clear that the band has definitely taken steps to expand their repertoire, and this album feels a lot more light-hearted than their last two full-lengths: Less tortured screaming, more happy melodies, but most importantly, strange bits that really work, like the orchestral hits in “Pale Black Eye” or the haunting choruses of “Virgin.”

I’m still not entirely sold on it, but it took several tries before I listened to all of Mean Everything to Nothing anyway. Maybe Simple Math is a step up from the masterpiece, and it hasn’t occurred to me yet; either way, I’d hate to see the band split up over a clearly well-planned and well-written album.

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