Part of what made Mean Everything to Nothing, Manchester Orchestra’s sophomore coming out party, such a dynamic and attention-grabbing effort was its strict dedication to sonic theft. Absolutely nothing they did was original, with the Atlanta quintet plagiarizing their way through rock history, lifting from Bright Eyes’ hyper-literate folk one minute and Nirvana’s tuneful alt-grunge the next. Singer-songwriter Andy Hull seemed hell-bent on tackling every trademarked form of rock composition, and while that fact may have resulted in a curious identity crisis, there was a winsome, borderline tongue-in-cheek quality to the whole affair that seemed to imply the band weren’t taking themselves all that seriously. And, more importantly, they had the energy and the creativity to back up their horseplay. “Steal big or go home” seemed to be the motto of the moment.
In the two years that separate Mean Everything to Nothing and their follow-up, Simple Math, Manchester Orchestra seem to have—gulp—figured out what sort of band they want to be. For those who were put off by their relentless shape-shifting, that bit of news is a good thing. Hull describes this 10-track effort as a concept album “about a 23-year old who questions everything from marriage to love to religion to sex,” but it’s difficult to suss out a unifying thread from his lyrics, which can be distractingly generic (“What if it was true that all we thought was right was wrong?” goes one bit of cornball philosophizing). But Simple Math does feel sonically unified, working a consistent template throughout its 45 minutes: electric guitars alternating between distorted, palm-muted power chords and lightly spacey arpeggios, a sturdy rhythm section underpinning Hull’s emotive nerd-rock harmonies. Their biggest attempt to move toward opus-level songcraft? Live strings, which pop up on virtually every track, poking around the crevices and adding grandiose glue.
If this all sounds like a surefire sign of artistic maturity—well, that’s true, but they seem to have traded in some of the ramshackle fun that made Mean Everything such an interesting listen. For starters, the strings weren’t such a great idea. With its tired, rolling, minor-key guitar progression, slow-burning rock ballad “Pale Black Eye” gets off to a bad start anyway, but when the by-numbers orchestra kicks in about half-way through, the ship starts to sink from its own weight. The production is slick and monochromatic—no individual instrument pops through the mix. And “Virgin,” a churning attempt at a no-holds-barred epic, is a cringe-worthy disaster, outfitted with repetitive distortion, dorky gang chanting, and the most awkward appearance from a group of vocalizing kindergarteners ever laid to tape. If you’re gonna go corny, go epic corny. Aspire to Freddie Mercury levels of bombast. Do the thing real big. Too often, Simple Math can’t decide which side of the fence it wants to sit on.
There are some excellent exceptions. “April Fool” is an irresistible slice of guitar-driven ‘90s alt-rock, Hull yelping over wicked riffing and big drum bursts. The title track actually achieves some of the epic glory they’re so desperately seeking; Hull adopts a sexy, soulful falsetto over his band’s slow, stormy groove. Added bonus: the arrangement is spacious enough for the strings, as the song builds, gradually, to a powerful climax.
Damned if they do, damned if they don’t, I guess. First, they had too many personalities; now they’ve arrived at one, but it’s a bit less vibrant. There are plenty of seeds sewn throughout Simple Math that could likely blossom into Manchester Orchestra’s first real breakthrough, but here, we’re stuck in the growing pains phase. In our age of sensory (and music) overload, it’s easy to get impatient with a band and write them off after a couple of partial knockouts. But I’m not giving up on Hull and his band of eager noisemakers—not just yet.