By Jade Curson
Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull has never shied away from excruciating intimacy in his songwriting. While not all of his evocative lyrics are rooted in literal truth – a full 10 years after hearing the minimalist yet devastating account of grief detailed in ‘Sleeper 1972’ for the first time, I am genuinely surprised to discover that actually, Hull’s father is definitely alive – the intensity of the emotions and images in his words often speak to a larger general truth. To put it another way: the stories in songs like ‘Sleeper 1972’ might not be real, but what they tell us about the underlying themes and emotions is unequivocally honest.
When a writer is as accomplished as Hull at creating scenes that feel true-to-life regardless of the actual origin of the narrative, it seems futile to try to dissect exactly what has come from his own life and what has simply come from his imagination. That being said, it’s surely impossible to take in the full complexities of Manchester Orchestra’s fifth album, A Black Mile To The Surface, without taking into account the significant changes to Hull’s home life since previous release, Cope – namely, the birth of his daughter Mayzie. Adjusting to his new role as a father is the dominating theme of Black Mile…, and while the line between anecdote and fiction remains somewhat blurred, it is abundantly clear that this album is an exercise in catharsis; his way of working out some really heavy shit.
The album opens innocuously enough with ‘The Maze’, a stripped-back serenade to his daughter that captures the awe of new parenthood, gradually building to a joyous, choir-backed celebration of his love. Sentimental without becoming cloying, it could fail to charm only the most stonehearted of listeners. It also focuses the spotlight directly on his relationship with his daughter from the outset. But perhaps most significantly, opening with ‘The Maze’ is also a neat little narrative device; the unquestioning and all-encompassing love of which he sings actually signals the resolution of the conflicts presented throughout the record. Pushing it to the front and centre takes away the mystery of how the story ends – and nudges the audience to move their focus to what is most important throughout the album: the journey.
The predominant sense throughout Black Mile is that all is far from well with Andy Hull. Lead single ‘The Gold’ tells the story of a relationship breaking down, of family tensions and a lingering self-doubt – the latter heavily influencing the former. When Hull sings “I don’t think I love you anymore”, the line is muted and unconvincing, as though speaking to himself to assess the truth of it rather than addressing another person with any conviction. In contrast, the chorus assertively dismisses the relationship as “a daydream”, and implores the other party to “lose your faith in me”. This insecurity is something that reappears throughout the album – a fear of the magnitude of responsibility placed upon him by his new role as a father, and an uncertainty of being equal to it. In ‘The Moth’, Hull contemplates the necessity of becoming an entirely different person: “Force myself to take a different name…throw the man you used to be away”. The record also frequently returns to the idea of mortality and what, if anything, comes next: in ‘The Grocery’, he laments being unable to share the unwavering faith of his father, declaring that “it’s obvious now, you believe it or you don’t”. This shaken faith is woven throughout the record with the recurring line “there’s nothing I’ve got when I die that I keep”; the line itself a documentation of the emotional journey that takes place here. At one moment can seem like a reminder to cherish the good moments and make the most of the time you have left. At others, it seems like an admission of defeat, of being overwhelmed by the futility of life in the face of mortality.
These are big concepts to tackle, and while Manchester Orchestra have tried their hand at sweeping atmospherics in the past – with some success – this is the record where they wield that tool to its full potential. Since their last album, Hull and guitarist Robert McDowell have worked on their first film score; a project which challenged him to look beyond the conventional ‘rock band’ ways of creating mood through music, and which has undeniably played a huge part in the writing of Black Mile. With a wealth of new musical elements in their arsenal – drum machines, samples, and an unprecedented amount of synth – Manchester Orchestra have honed their already impressive ability to match sound to mood, into an art. That the build from understated tension to crescendoing chorus to the wailing discordant close of ‘The Wolf’ is able to convey so much before even drawing on the lyrics is a testament to their talent and continuing growth as artists.
Not content simply to create an album complex and grandiose enough to sound like the soundtrack to an Oscar-nominated movie, Hull continues to draw on cinematic influences by creating a subplot within the album. ‘Lead, SD’ transports us to a small town in South Dakota, and remains there to tell three short stories: ‘The Alien’, ‘The Sunshine’ and ‘The Grocery’. The distinction between these songs and the main body of the album is subtle but rewarding: a gentler sound, a calculated shift away from first-person narration, a guitar refrain which connects the three as a self-contained entity. While not directly linked to the main narrative, it hones in on similar ideas – complicated family relationships, confronting mortality and questioning faith – which create a more complex and nuanced view of the key themes on the record.
After spiralling into the very centre of an existential crisis, the mood shifts once again in ‘The Parts’; a stripped back, half-whispered ballad reaffirming his total commitment to his wife, and Hull’s declaration that after everything, he “still want[s] to know each part” of her. This is made all the more poignant by its position in the album – this realisation coming after (or as a result of) an onslaught of his doubts and fears. When he is unsure of everything around him, and has been demonstrably worn down and worn out by everything that came before, this love is his constant, the one thing of which he can be truly sure. That’s romantic as fuck.
Closer ‘The Silence’ is a powerful testament to getting better – not quite shaking those demons off entirely (“little girl you are cursed by my ancestry”), but recognising them for what they are, and managing them a little better. As the song builds to the final dramatic swell, the recurring line once again takes on a new shape and meaning: “there is nothing you keep, there is only a reflection”. This nod to the influence he will have on his growing daughter serves both as a way to combat the fear of confronting his own mortality, and a reminder to always continue striving to do the best that he can for her. It also brings the album full circle: after working through his fears and insecurities, the focus returns to Hull’s devotion to his family, and how this outweighs the pressures and fears that arise from it. This perfectly encapsulates the overarching theme of the album; the journey through a bad place to get to something better – of travelling that black mile to the surface.
This manipulation of a recurring lyric is a subtle yet infuriatingly clever way of marking the conclusion of the album’s journey. While the immediacy of the music is compelling enough for a casual listener, there is certainly a reward in multiple revisits. The complexity and scale of the callbacks and references between songs will satisfy even the biggest of easter egg nerds. With A Black Mile To The Surface, Manchester Orchestra have created a dramatic and highly satisfying body of work, a standout record in a discography that’s already been stuffed silly with great releases. Long may their journey continue.