Manchester Orchestra, “A Black Mile to the Surface”

Manchester Orchestra
A Black Mile to the Surface
LOMA VISTA
6/10

You may not know it, but Manchester Orchestra, the deceptively named rock band from the Atlanta area, is all around you. Their music has been on Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill, they wrote the score for the 2016 film Swiss Army Man, and, weirdly, they’ve had songs in not one but two NHL video games. Ever since their strong 2006 debut album, I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, their sound has been polished, grandiose, and evocative—a natural choice for soundtracks. But it’s not like this is a band that’s ever been anything but confident. In 2014, they released Hope, an LP that acoustically reimagined their own previous release, Cope. They’re ambitious, and it’s paid off for them. They’re going to do what they do, whether it’s in a garage or at Coachella.

On their fifth LP, A Black Mile to the Surface, they play like they can fill a stadium, and the production matches that self-assuredness. If this one feels like an especially bold Manchester Orchestra record, that’s because it is, and it was meant to be. Working with new collaborators and old, their trademark big guitars have been dialed down quite a bit. This time around, the space in which each song lives feels huge. Everything echoes, and you’ll swear you can hear wind blowing. There’s more room than ever to think about things, to let them reverberate, and the subject matter demands it: Guitarist and songwriter Andy Hull became a father in 2014, and he’s spent a good amount of the beginning of his daughter’s life on the road. So the characters in Black Mile—the husbands and the wives and the little girls—are born from experience.  

The wide-open spaces here are sometimes overstuffed with synthesizers and group singalongs, and a couple of songs teeter into melodramatic Mumford territory. But Manchester Orchestra meant to try something new with this album, and they’ve certainly succeeded on that front. It’s different but the same, which is to say that it’s sweeping, professional, and carefully crafted—a next step that feels fitting for them.

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