[Rating: 4 stars]
The members of Manchester Orchestra have grown up as a band, and not just figuratively. The Atlanta foursome released their first record, Like a Virgin Losing a Child, when they were teenagers, kicking off their first tours at age 18 and playing to exponentially growing crowds. Mean Everything To Nothing, their 2009 sophomore effort, was a riotous, aggressive romp, with lead singer Andy Hull’s throaty screaming and half-growled lyrics signaling his violent surge into adulthood. Now, with adulthood squarely in hand (Hull is 24, and wears those six years of professional musicianship under his belt well), Manchester Orchestra has proved their maturity with Simple Math, a polished collection of complex, often achingly beautiful tracks, revealing the band to be a streamlined, sexier version of its former angst-ridden self. And it’s not just the addition of a strings section, though that’s a welcome twist. Simple Math is a loosely formulated concept album about a man whose life and marriage is crumbling around him, a coming of age album that could come at any age – an appropriate idea for a band who did things at turbo speed.
Opening track “Deer” immediately declares the band’s new mindset with Hull’s newfound indie rock whine – like a clearer, less suicidal Conor Oberst – calling out to his fans: ” Dear everybody that has paid to see my band / It’s still confusing, I’ll never understand / I acted like an asshole so my albums would never burn / I’m hungry now, and the scraps are dirty dirt.” Maybe it’s that hunger that makes this album so good, though it seems effortless. “Pensacola” is downright whimsical, and “Mighty,” wedged between the two, is an anthemic nod to their previous work, but tighter and cleaner. In fact, there’s plenty of rollicking rock left on this album, coming out in bursts in “Pale Black Eye” and the joyful, screamy “April Fool.”
The lyrics, too, are at their best on this album. In the sexy two step of “Simple Math,” Hull croons, “I want to rip your lips off in my mouth / Even in my greatest moment doubt / The line between deceit and right now.” In “Pensacola,” he laments the “Alcohol, dirty malls, Pensacola, Florida bars.”
Seven-minute closer “Leaky Breaks” is a fitting way for the album to wind down, a fuzzy ballad that sounds like a long exhale. And this is a band that deserves some time off. After all, they’ve just made the best album of their career – so far, at least. They’ve perfected the balance of gorgeous songwriting and rabid musicianship, so we can’t wait to see what they do next.