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On April 1st, 2009, Andy Hull started to put his life back together.
Manchester Orchestra’s new album, Simple Math, is about that experience. “It’s the reaction to my marital, physical, and mental failures. But for the first time, I’m not blaming anyone but myself,” Hull says. Produced fat, tactile and beautiful by Dan Hannon, Simple Math is Hannon’s third full-length LP with the band, starting with the debut album I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child and then the follow-up Mean Everything To Nothing. Recorded at Blackbird Studios in Nashville and mixed by Joe Chiccarelli, the band kept the same studio set-up and production team intact from their second to third records.
Simple Math is a concept album. As Roy Shuker defines in his book Popular Music: The Key Concepts, a concept album is a record “unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical.” Simple Math is indeed unified by all of these. The instrumentation is big, even in its smallest moments. The composition is emotional and complex, expertly weaving music with story. The narrative is a trip through a man’s brain, through his mistakes, regrets and realizations. And the lyrics, which take us firsthand through this life-changing experience, are poetic and raw, honest and passionate.
But Manchester Orchestra has always been about truth; about passion. It’s why Alternative Press gave MO’s 2009 acclaimed Mean Everything to Nothing (which yielded the Top 10 Modern Rock hit “I’ve Got Friends”) a five-star lead review that called the album “a masterpiece of intricacy and honesty.” You can feel their passion in the power of Hull’s voice and the fury of the band’s music in every track they’ve ever laid down, a power that wraps itself around you and demands your attention as Hull’s lyrics guide you through the world as he sees it. “I’ve always had a clear perception of right and wrong around me,” says Hull, “I’ve constantly questioned my beliefs, trying to find the truth.”
The son and grandson of southern ministers, Hull formed Manchester Orchestra in 2004 at the age of 17 with his lifelong friends (Jonathan Corley on bass, keyboardist Chris Freeman, guitarist Robert McDowell and drummer Tim Very) and used their music as a way to explore the issues that mattered most to him, issues of life, emotional vulnerability and the human condition. “I’ve always believed in God, but modernized Christianity can scare me. I’m a spiritual, but not a religious, person. And I like to use my music to explore how that faith stretches and challenges me to be a better man.”
In 2005, before they were even old enough to vote, Manchester Orchestra headed out on the road and played over 200 shows, quickly building a legion of loyal fans that grows bigger and bigger with every show they play and every album they release. “We wouldn’t showcase for the record labels,” says Hull of the band’s early days. “We wanted to play as many gigs as we could and we wanted the labels to come see us live, with our audience, in the clubs.” And the labels came. In 2007, their explosive first record I’m Like a Virgin Losing A Child became a critical favorite, the New York Times praising it as “Music to swoon to.” Two years later, Mean Everything to Nothing arrived and was heralded as one of the best records of 2009, with Absolute Punk raving: “Quick note to the rest of the albums coming out this year: The bar has just been set.” And now with the arrival of Simple Math, the bar has been set yet again. “The songs on this record are stories,” explains Hull, “but more directed and personal. In many ways, it can be called a dueling conversation between my wife, God and myself.”
The opening track “Deer” sets a simmering and descriptive starting-point to Hull’s and our journey. It begins with an honest confession, carefully full of vivid detail. The lyric I’d go out in public if nobody ever asked perfectly sums up just how hard it is to lead a normal life once your pain becomes public. This is followed by the hard driving and rich Mighty, which Hull describes as sounding “like the Apocalypse. It’s my darkest hour, in a sense.” The third track, Pensacola, is a meditation on where the band has taken him and where he thinks he may be heading. “In this song, the innocence is leaving,” says Hull. The raw and masterful April Fool is next, an exquisite dynamite blast of big guitars, giant drums and soaring harmonies that, ironically, “was my first attempt at a love song on this album.” This moves directly into Pale Black Eye, a power-chord powder keg that builds from controlled discourse (“The song is sung three ways: Me to God, me to my wife, and God to me”) to earthshaking confession, a rock and roll bloodletting. Bite your veins/ bleed your pain/ into me.
Virgin appears next, a four and a half minute rock opera that looks back at the road that led the band to the present. “It’s a tri-fold story that parallels three ‘firsts’ for me,” explains Hull. “The loss of my virginity, the potential loss of relationship, and the realization that our band has and will change after our first album. To all of these issues, the same lyric applies: It’s never gonna be the same.” It’s here that the heartfelt and elegant title track (and first single) Simple Math arrives. “This is a song about an affair, non-existent but unrealized. I cannot hide from the truth. It finds me. The chorus is myself questioning God. Had I convinced myself, my family, my band that something is real when it isn’t?” Leave It Alone next slips quietly (at first) into the aftermath, a beautiful yet angry recounting of a three-hour argument brought on by what five years on the road can do to someone. “I love the last line, If we end up alone, a plague on my head and a curse on our home. This song is my realization that there’s a chance no one will ever love me like my wife Amy.”
Second from last is Apprehension, a sobering, lyrical tour through the guilt, the blame, the questioning of who’s at fault. “Not only is the song about Amy and me, it’s also about several friends and family members going through a miscarriage. It represents that even after all has been mended in one heavy situation, life will continue to give you trials that require immense trust and faith in someone or something.” And ending it all is Leaky Brakes, which tiptoes quietly but confidently in to lead us back into the present. “The final breath is essentially to admit to everything I’ve ever done wrong,” says Hull of this final track. “The lyrics are so evolved compared to where we began. It’s all here and ready to be confronted. It’s up to me now.”
Rarely does an album come along of such monumental honesty and vulnerability. The power of the music, the complexity of the songwriting, the opportunity to hear a band at the top of their game evolving before our very eyes – it all makes Simple Math so much more than a collection of songs, so much more than just a concept album. Simple Math is a deeply emotional experience. And, simply put, it is a masterwork.