Review: Manchester Orchestra, ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’

When Manchester Orchestra released their landmark debut album, I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, they became instant indie darlings. Throughout their decade long career, the band has made a name for itself delivering heart-wrenching, direct songs that gracefully manage to avoid sounding trite or too on the nose. Their latest release, A Black Mile to the Surface, continues in this tradition and improves upon it.

A far cry from the boyish angst of earlier lauded releases, Black Mile is rife with melancholy Americana, and manages to navigate the mournful and transcendent to great success. Frontman Andy Hull’s earnest vocals are as inviting as-ever, and the warm acoustic tones are a significant break from 2013’s stormy release, Cope. The album’s centerpiece, a flowing triad formed from the album’s second single, “The Alien,” “The Sunshine,” and “The Grocery,” are beautiful pieces of songwriting fit seamlessly together. “I want to feel the way your father felt, was it easy for belief” sings Hull on “The Grocery.” “I want to know if there’s a higher love he saw that I can’t see.” Hull reaches for the divine while being grounded painfully in the quotidian.

Though Black Mile is easily the band’s strongest release since their 2009 sophomore effort, Mean Everything to Nothing, it has its failings. The record starts to lose steam with “The Wolf,” which relies on distorted guitars and synth driven melody. It seems almost out of step with the careful candor of the rest of the album, especially after the two song, largely acoustic driven centerpiece after “the Alien.” The ninth track, “The Mistake,” sounds like it was pulled from an early album from the Boxer Rebellion. “The Parts” is a delicate, idiosyncratic love song underscored by quietly plucked acoustic. Hull’s shaky, breathy vocals are given depth via added reverb and a lo-fi wash that’s suggestive of vinyl’s heyday.

There are easy comparisons to be made here – Hull’s soaring vocals throughout the record can be reminiscent of Band of Horses or Fleet Foxes. But at their best, the band sounds like a more mature iteration of their early days – an un-cynical attempt to grapple with the throes of adulthood.

–Christian Bischoff

A Black Mile to the Surface Rating: 8/10

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