Indie upstarts rock out while pondering the Big Questions
Manchester Orchestra’s moniker is particularly misleading: The band hails from Atlanta, Ga., not The Smiths’ hometown, and string arrangements are nonexistant in their five-piece American indie rock. But the name isn’t altogether ironic. The original impulse imagined a proletariat city aspiring to something beyond its means—a reasonably apt symbol for band leader Andy Hull’s thematic concerns, expressed in coming-of-age songs where serious young men with fluctuating self-esteem grapple with the outsized vagaries of girlfriends and/or God. Even when the immediate smallness of his situation comes across in mundane lyrical details, Hull’s philosophical preoccupations let you know he’s a big-picture kind of guy.
But is Manchester Orchestra a big kind of band? The jury was out after 2006’s I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, a remarkably precocious debut for the then-teenaged group—maybe too precocious: Not many 19-year-olds would kick off a song about a death in the family with a line like “When my dad died, the worms ate out both his eyes.” Touring with acts like Brand New and Kings of Leon, the band built a solid following of indie-rock rowdies, but on record, it seemed overly enamored with its own moping, Hull’s pre-drinking-age midlife crisis bogging down the tempos.
But Mean Everything to Nothing is a fantastic leap forward that sounds more youthful in all the right, robust ways, even if the now 22-year-old frontman isn’t in danger of lightening up anytime soon. Producer Joe Chiccarelli (The Shins, The Raconteurs, My Morning Jacket) brings decades of record-making experience, and Manchester Orchestra seems suddenly unashamed to acknowledge critical influences like the invigorating guitar riffs and campfire hooks of Weezer—or Nirvana, in their more accessible Butch Vig-produced period. The young band has learned a great secret: It’s possible to make a massive, commercial, go-for-the-gusto Rock Record while still holding on to dark idiosyncrasies and seriousness of purpose.
Hull screams more on this sophomore effort, and that’s a good thing. It was clear from the start that he had more vocal character than your garden-variety emo whiner, and here, he often raises his voice from Conor Oberst’s droll woundedness to Vedder-esque rebel yelling. What’s getting him so worked up? Mostly crises of faith. The opening track, “The Only One,” recalls power-popsters Supergrass at their most chipper, though Hull is already busy setting up the album’s sober personal and religious conflicts. “I am the only son of a pastor I know who does the things I do,” he sings; to a fellow reprobate, he further complains, “If it was you, I don’t think that it would matter.” The urgency ratchets up a notch in screamo highlight “Shake It Out,” which mixes mysterious teen hijinks with an existential crisis,until a somber, self-loathing bridge, on which Hull confesses, “I felt the Lord begin / To peel off all my skin / And I felt the weight within / reveal a bigger mess that you can’t fix.”
Lest this sound remotely like the stuff of Christian rock, Manchester Orchestra gives up any shot at a Dove Award with “In My Teeth,” recalling Nirvana’s “Lithium” not just in the gratifyingly derivative transition from loping verse to anthemic chorus, but in its attitude toward religion, at least the kind that promises certainty. “John spoke a theory into my brain / God damn, did you mean to do that to me?” Hull yowls. “What happens when I don’t know what happens?” Good question. On “The River,” the album’s alternately devout and sacrilegious finale, our hero repeats the baptismal mantra “Take me to the river,” a la Reverend Al Green, but also keeps telling the Lord—wryly and none too reassuringly—“I’m gonna leave you the first chance I get.”
If earthly betrayal is more your bag, there’s enough workaday romantic doubt and disillusionment to go around for anyone who discovered Manchester Orchestra when the enigmatic “I Can Feel a Hot One” (reprised here) premiered last fall on Gossip Girl. It’s easy to imagine the CW-watching crowd joining in, too, on teaser single “I’ve Got Friends,” with its unlikely sing-along chorus, “I’ve got friends in all the right places / I know what they want and I know they don’t want me to stay.” Robert McDowell’s nitty-gritty guitar lines rip post-teen angst a new one, and Chris Freeman’s subliminal keyboards occasionally break through long enough to offer something fleetingly akin to orchestral sweep. Mean Everything to Nothing manages to be both petty and grand, and that means plenty.