Manchester Orchestra‘s ‘Simple Math‘ is not strictly a concept album, but front man Andy Hull describes it as such. He admits the album was written during the first two years of his marriage, when his relationship with his wife reached a crisis point.
The album documents the near breakdown of their relationship, as well as its eventual recovery. He called it “a reaction to my mental, physical and marital failures.”
Their previous brand of guitar-driven rock might not sound like the right formula for delivering the kind of tortured anguish that this description invokes, but the difference between this and their previous offerings is that they’ve added a string section. As a result the album achieves a delicate balance of loss and hope, light and shade.
Subdued opener ‘Deer‘ sets the tone. Dealing with the subject of loneliness and isolation and the inevitable loss of confidence that comes with it, ‘Deer’ is beautifully and brutally honest. Like most of Manchester Orchestra’s offerings, it has nothing as bourgeois as a chorus, but with lyrics like this it doesn’t need one. Despite descending briefly into self-indulgence: “Dear everybody that has paid to see my band, it’s still confusing, I’ll never understand,” it’s one of the album’s more touching tracks.
Third track ‘Pensacola‘ establishes itself as a potential stand-out track at this early stage. With a more narrative structure than they usually employ, it’s also the most upbeat track on the album, but continues the theme of mixing light-hearted humour with pathos. This however is merely the appetiser for the two tracks that follow, ‘Virgin‘ and the titular ‘Simple Math‘. These are arguably the best songs on the album and not surprisingly, two of the single releases.
The title track is proof, if it were needed, that Hull was in the midst of an existential crisis. Pondering on the meaning of existence and his place in the world, Hull himself has described this as the best song he’s ever written. It’s sung with a heartbreaking fragility and proves that Hull’s often mesmerising voice sounds better when he keeps it simple, the use of voice changers on some of the other tracks merely distracts. Manchester Orchestra always use strings to best effect. Here they’re used as punctuation, complimenting rather than overpowering.
Occasionally songs come along that are so honest they’re almost uncomfortable to listen to. Great songwriters have the ability to take a tragedy and make it both beautiful and painful. If this album has a weak spot it’s that the two songs that encapsulate this are probably, in many respects, the weakest. ‘Apprehension‘ is like taking a peak into someone’s diary on the worst day of their life. His wife’s miscarriage is the subject and told with unrelenting frankness, but the melody is so upbeat as to almost trivialise it. ‘Pale Black Eyes‘ is equally candid: “God damn I’m tired of crying, I wish I loved you like I used to,” but suffers from being repetitive.
None of this distracts from the magnificence of the album as a whole. The tempo is spot on and a lot of thought has been put into how the album progresses. Despite telling a story, the narrative isn’t linear so if you’re expecting a happy ending you won’t get one. You will however, get an insight into a period in someone’s life and an appreciation of the importance of balance and thematic consistency.
Manchester Orchestra’s six year career has produced two albums and seven EPs, all of which hinted at a potential that until now was never fully realised. This could be the tipping point that finally launches them into the mainstream. A supporting slot for Biffy Clyro might have introduced them to a wider audience, but this is their chance to step out from the anthem-bellowing Scots shadow. If they play their cards right, the winner of this years X-Factor could be releasing a cover of a Manchester Orchestra song this Christmas and spoiling it for everyone.