Manchester Orchestra largely cornered the post-punk market after their first couple albums. I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child and Mean Everything To Nothing are a couple of the least marketable works on a major label like Columbia, but they’re critical success seems to suffice in keeping them producing a high caliber of work and convincing the powers that be to maintain their place on their mainstream home. That the band has been given such creative freedom means that someone, somewhere, in a towering corporate office somewhere actually understands that you can’t shape talent – it shapes itself.
Now on their third major label release, Simple Math, Manchester Orchestra has reached the point of self-assurance accompanying two consecutive successes. Prior releases found the quartet playing to and exposing their vulnerabilities, but their latest addresses a newfound self-confidence. Simple Math by no means sacrifices the subtle nuances that hinge on Manchester Orchestra’s success, but now sits with notable poise, speaking and playing with a newfound volume.
You just get he impression that Simple Math sounds exactly like songwriter Andy Hull intended at any given moment – like a celebrated marksman taking aim at unmoving targets, each shot rings out and lands with unquestioned authority. “Deer” opens the album with what serves as a soft prelude. Infused with a hint of rural simplicity, Hull writes what seems to be an open letter to fans and friends (“Dear Everybody That Has Paid to See My Band, it’s still confusing, we’ll never understand”), confessing that their band history is not deserving of mass attention.
But rather than fight their feelings, the group barrels ahead with “Mighty,” introducing listeners to the group’s deepest, most crunching riffs to date. Played with a hint of anger, Hull takes the entire three minute track to spout out self defeating antonyms building on their previous defeatist sentiment (“Cats Cradle and hail to the Rat King/Teeth sharpened on our broken bones/Look straight in the eyes of the hopeless/You can’t swing if you don’t use your arms/It’s not like I was lost for a purpose/lost purpose and purposefully froze”). “April Fool” feeds off the same feverous outbursts, but this time embracing a lifetime of predestined (“I was born an April fool/Full of gold to a brothel”) confrontation (“Leaves are dead but I am here/Waiting on another good year, I’ve come around this time to set fire to your homes/And let you go!”). Such tracks are bold while maintaining emotional attachment.
If this sounds out of the ordinary, and as if Manchester Orchestra has cast astray some of their most unique elements, then I feel your plight. However, I’d urge you to reserve judgment until all ten tracks run their course. As it turns out, the majority of the most classically aligned material rests on the concluding half of the album. For instance, in “Pensacola” and “Pale Black Eye” traces of synth, acoustic flutters, and a Death Cab For Cutie softness surfaces. The best example of the intense mood the band is known for comes with the sweeping, very Brand New influenced mood of “Virgin.” “We built this house with our hands, and our time, and our blood You build this up in one day to fall downward and rust” a chilling chant of child vocals opens, guides, and closes the atmospheric masterpiece.
The title track follows, boasting all the essential qualities of a song defining a complete work by name. One of the most vocally memorable comes in the passage “Simple math, it’s why our bodies even lay here/Sinful math, the truth cannot be fractioned/What if you were crazy, would we have to listen then?” Questioning the limits of science and spirituality against a sorrowful string section, the song opens up a Pandora’s box of existential topics.
Confident and able, Simple Math finds Manchester Orchestra experimenting with their louder side. Some may be anxious about the new direction, but change is a positive trend shared amongst most long lasting post-hardcore bands. Thirce, Brand New, and Thursday have all gone through various incarnations, and look at them now. Simple Math marks a unique step in what is already a creatively fulfilling career.