Manchester Orchestra rose to notoriety with their 2009 album Mean Everything to Nothing, rising from a regional band of recent high school grads to a nationally recognized band of recent high school grads. Led by frontman and chief songwriter Andy Hull, the Atlanta band’s reputation has been built on its knack for creating introspective and confessional rock music where no doubt, fear, or hope was off-limits.
“I am the only son of a pastor I know who does the things I do,” Hull sang on the opening track of that album, striking the perfect tension between condemnation of and reservation regarding an inherited belief. It is on this sort of youthful bravado and energetic catharsis that Manchester Orchestra’s legacy was built.
Three albums and eight years later, Manchester Orchestra has returned with A Black Mile to the Surface. Loosely written as a concept album about a mining town, this latest album takes more than a few influences from songwriter Sufjan Stevens as it interweaves storylines set to a mostly reserved group of songs.
Musical motifs come in and out along with stories of familial and personal collapse in the face of miserable working conditions, small-town stagnation, and loss of faith. These storylines are fairly muddled and difficult to follow throughout most of the album, but one theme rings loudly among each of the eleven songs; A Black Mile to the Surface is an album about distance. Distance from family, society, God, or simply the faith of your father.
As it turns out, Andy Hull may not be a good enough storyteller to keep narratives clear, concise, and engaging across an entire album. He is, however, a good enough songwriter and performer to wrench a clear purpose to these stories from the limitations of their lyrical presentation.
At any point on A Black Mile to the Surface, even if the listener doesn’t quite know which characters are involved or what is taking place, he or she does feel the weight and significance of each part of the story. And it’s not all pain and desperation; the album features moments of pure beauty, as on the reprieve of the song “The Sunshine,” that tease deliverance.
Perhaps a mile from the surface isn’t too far after all. (Loma Vista)