I vaguely recall about five years ago reading a rave review of the first Manchester Orchestra album, I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child. Strange name for an album, I thought. The reviewer noted what a strong songwriter the front man, Andy Hull was, especially as a 19-year-old. What? A strong songwriter that young? I’ll have to check them out, I thought. But then I forgot to check them out. Until a few months ago when a colleague of mine insisted that I pick up the new Manchester Orchestra album, Simple Math. Again, I was slow to act, so my colleague went out and bought it for me! So I listened…then listened again and again and again. I was enthralled by Andy Hull’s entire artistic sensibility. Now a seasoned 25-year-old rock and roll veteran, he really is a tremendous songwriter, but I came to learn that he’s also a profoundly interesting person.
For me, the first immersion in Manchester Orchestra’s music was much like my experience of early U2 or the Smiths. In these cases, the front men—Bono and Morrissey—explored their own emotional landscape in every song. Yet it never seemed to be an exercise in self-indulgence because their experiences were really everyone’s experiences (or so they made you feel). And, anyway, even if they were self-indulgent, you really didn’t mind because they were such interesting guys. Well, Andy Hull is like that, and his band has just as much musical depth as U2 or the Smiths to give his lyrics the sonic context they deserve and reinforce the earnest passion in Hull’s unique voice.
After several more listenings, another thing hit me about Hull’s songwriting. He never succumbs to cliché and almost never even resorts to idioms. Although sometimes vague or ambiguous, like good poetry, even when you can’t secure a definite interpretation of a line, or even an entire stanza, it somehow still works and pulls you in even further.
The album’s title track (the video for which you can see here) begins:
I’m lost and hardly noticed, slight goodbye
I want to rip your lips off in my mouth
And even in my greatest moment doubt
The line between deceit and right now
Here he seems to be speaking to his wife regarding their relationship, which, Hull has said in recent interviews, was troubled by his own irresponsible behavior. The entire album consists of songs that explore his own mistakes and renewed resolve to be the man he’s failed to be. So Simple Math is really a sort of concept album with a refreshingly hopeful, if sometimes painfully honest, theme.
Hull also wrestles with God at different points on the album, even as he has on previous records. Though, unlike before, he’s not blaming anyone but himself for his troubles, even if he recognizes that life will be just as hard even when he’s gotten his act together:
Finding out that you had lost the little one inside you
Not a sound, but chalk that you had dropped on the floor
And I could tell that when you fell the future never planned on getting easier
God has never been afraid to fill our cups with more than they could hold
Til they all overflow and we drown once and for all (“Apprehension”)
On some tracks, such as “April Fool,” it feels like a three-way wrestling match between Hull, his wife, and God:
I don’t know where I’ve been, what I’ve done
I am the once now irreplaceable son
I’m antichrist in your home
I’ll come around this time to let you suck from my soul
Let me go
For all its lyrical depth, Simple Math is just as interesting from a purely musical standpoint. The arrangements are ambitious and sometimes surprising, enhanced by strings, horns, and even a children’s choir. This is rich stuff in every way. Check it out. But don’t wait as long as I did.
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