Before recording anything for Manchester Orchestra’s fifth album, Andy Hull aimed to deconstruct what the band was. “My challenge was whatever you’re instinctively going to want to play on the record, try and not do that,” Hull explained to UPROXX earlier this summer, “try and do the opposite of that thing.” Obviously, there isn’t anything like a simple “how-to” guide on achieving such a goal, so the band worked with multiple producers at various studios to create a record that could cement their legacy as one of this era’s great rock bands. And after a year full of obsessive detail, second guessing, and a grueling recording process, Manchester Orchestra emerged with A Black Mile To The Surface, their most majestic and challenging record yet.
Black Mile certainly dials back the abrasiveness that was delivered on Cope, rededicating itself to the pristine production that was present on past albums. The record refreshingly begins with the quiet “The Maze.” But don’t mistake the lack of power chords as a lack of impact, as Hull’s vocals seamlessly intertwine with the track’s understated electronic glitches to create a dynamic that the album continues to build on throughout its 11 tracks. Much has been made about Hull and guitarist Robert McDowell’s desire to record this album as if it was a score to a movie, a la what the duo did for the 2016 film, Swiss Army Man. A Black Mile To The Surface has that cinematic aura throughout, as the album feels like a three-act movie. The album’s first single, “The Gold,” sets the table with album’s catchiest chorus while the shimmering rock of “The Moth” will leave your heart pounding. But it’s the eerie “Lead, SD” feels like a turning point into the record’s heavy thematic material. The song is incredibly unnerving and meticulously layered; a shock to the system before transitioning into “The Alien.” Gentle in nature, “The Alien” channels a Sufjan Stevens vibe while tackling topics like abuse – the bittersweet juxtaposition makes it one of the album’s very best. Lyrically, Hull is crafting stories from inside the mind of other people instead of his own, utilizing unique perspectives to subtly reveal his deepest fears and worries.
From there we get “The Sunshine,” a two-minute Radiohead-esque number that somewhat serves as album’s interlude before exploding into “The Grocery.” Lusciously layered, “The Grocery” shows off how good Manchester Orchestra is at balancing its soft and loud moments within an alt-rock scope, while “The Mistake” is the best song that never appeared on “Simple Math.” However, Black Mile is at its best when it’s pushing its sonic boundaries, which the jarring “The Wolf” achieves, its industrial vibe (thanks to Tim Very’s excellent drumming) leads the way into ominous electronic flourishes from McDowell, creating a sense of controlled chaos that’s paced by Hull’s sprawling vocals.
The album’s climax begins with the penultimate “The Parts,” a stripped down acoustic number that once again highlights Hull’s incredible voice. It’s easy to take for granted how excellent a singer Hull is, as he turns in the best vocal performance in his career. “The Parts” is the perfect setup for “The Silence,” Black Mile’s seven-minute finale and one of the best written songs in the entire Manchester discography. The grandiosity that had been slowly building up throughout the album finally reaches its logical conclusion, as “The Silence” expertly crafts its infectious harmonies before unleashing crushing guitars and clashing cymbals while Hull’s ever-urgent voice pierces through the storm.
Sure, the record isn’t as accessible like their breakout LP Mean Everything To Nothing or as immediate as the aforementioned Cope, as there is more to unpack on this record than any previous Manchester record. With its cinematic styling along with Andy Hull deviating away from his autobiographical lyrics of the past, A Black Mile To The Surface will initially feel polarizing to the tenured Manchester listener; the album’s scope feeling more intimidating and exhausting than ever before. But it’s deliberate and focused, demanding all your attention but ultimately resulting as one of the year’s most captivating and rewarding listens. There are very few bands within the modern rock scene as bold as the Atlanta quartet, so A Black Mile To The Surface isn’t so much a reintroduction to the band but rather the continued evolution of Manchester Orchestra.