Last winter, my wife and I took a trip to her mother’s house in Florida. On the way back, I decided to play through the discography of Manchester Orchestra, one of my favorite bands, but one I hadn’t listened to closely in quite some time. The collected length of all the albums would put us pretty close to home. We switched driving duties more than halfway through Georgia, and so began my time behind the wheel while my wife took a nap. About an hour and half, or two albums through, I noticed an odd sight, a sign: “Welcome to Florida.”
Strange, I thought, I didn’t think Florida wrapped around both ends of Georgia. Unfortunately for me that day, my geography knowledge was better than my ability to follow directions. I had gone the wrong way, back almost the entire length of Georgia and into Florida. Bummer. But, rather than saying something about my ability to not pay attention, I chose to have it say something about what drew my attention away. Manchester Orchestra is a band that pulls me in, word by word, riff by riff, into reflection and meditation, into both nostalgia and preparation. Their new album, A Black Mile to the Surface, just may be their best execution of this yet.
Musically, A Black Mile to the Surface is a logical follow-up to 2014’s Cope (and its sister acoustic-version album Hope). It combines the all of blasted guitars in Cope’s best moments with the moments in Hope that remembered that Manchester Orchestra’s most powerful instrument has never been guitars turned to eleven, but Andy Hull’s gently robust voice. There’s a lot of feeling transmitted in Hull’s voice, and it’s the thing that’s made Manchester Orchestra so influential and important to so many. (Steven Hyden’s profile at UpROXX speaks to this in detail.) His vocals can carry simple phrases like “And I wanted to know each part / Want to know each part of you” to a place haunting and romantic.
A Black Mile to the Surface is, broadly, about Hull’s emotional and mental state as he became a father. More specifically, the album seems to be split into at least three different narratives, which may or may not converge at the end of the album. I haven’t gotten a complete grasp on it all yet. It seems like the narratives hop around from different track groupings. The first (maybe) comprises the four tracks, “The Gold,” “The Moth,” and “Lead, SD,” a story set decades ago about a wife and her coal-miner husband (to get home, he travels ‘a black mile to the surface’). The next is more supernatural, perhaps, a dark tale of attempted suicide and a father’s reflection on his own childhood. This is probably within tracks, “The Alien,” “The Sunshine,” and “The Grocery.” The rest, and even those really, I’m not so sure about, but there are narratives aplenty here, written with Hull’s patented lyricism. I have little doubt they’ll reveal themselves over time.
The faults of the latter half of Manchester’s discography could often be laid at the feet of overproduction. The songs, even the small ones now, have a lot going on in them: synths, sound effects, recordings, layered hooks, and so on. But more times than not, they make it work for them, anchoring whatever sounds they pile on on Hull’s voice and Robert McDowell guitars. On A Black Mile to the Surface, it works better than it has in a long while. There’s darkness here, the album’s title is certainly no ray of light, but there’s also the distinct sound of a band enjoying where they are. It’s a black mile to the surface, but hey, there’s a surface up there waiting.
* All of the album’s tracks, minus “Lead, SD” start with article “The.” This is a slight trick to lend it a cinematic feel, as though its unfolding story by story, scene by scene. Most times, rock bands think if I have as many things going on as possible, that makes it cinematic, though that’s only sometimes the case.
* This is the first Manchester Orchestra album without keyboardist/instrumentalist Chris Freeman. As one of the founding members, his presence is certainly missed, but the other members seems to absorb his duties pretty well. If you hadn’t known he left, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell. It may become more noticeable as the band tours, however, who knows.
* I know music-types say this all the time, but this really does reward a full listen. Many of the lyrics, hooks, and keys tend to repeat themselves throughout the album, building a very specific sonic tapestry. Sometimes creating that veers into overproduction (like it does at times on Cope, for instance), but here I bought it much more consistently.
* Another one of my favorite Hull vocal tendencies is to deliver tongue twister phrases of jumbled meaning. On “The Sunshine” for instance, “I already know that I don’t already know / You are the sunlight.”