Sound — 8
Starting out as indie/emo darlings with their cult classic debut, "I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child," Manchester Orchestra have maintained a M.O. of ongoing development from there. Their follow-up album, 2009's "Mean Everything To Nothing," added more rock energy to the band's emo backbone, and 2011's "Simple Math" would further embellish things with more string sections, organs, and even a children's choir. With those aspirations making the sound of "Simple Math" both mature and pretentious, Manchester Orchestra went a more straightforward route with their fourth album, 2014's "Cope," where its stark indie/alt rock sound made it the band's heaviest album to date; they would also surprise-release an acoustic counterpart to that album later that year, entitled "Hope."
While "Hope" may have been the proper yin to the yang of "Cope," Manchester Orchestra's fifth studio album, "A Black Mile to the Surface," also positions itself as a contrast to the vigorous nature of "Cope." With lower tempos and guitar power that's generally more reserved, this softer songwriting backdrop allows gentler melodies to lead things, like with frontman Andy Hull's acoustic guitar riffing in "The Moth" and "The Parts," but it also shows them intertwining with more nuanced sonic textures, heard in "The Gold" and "The Mistake."
The band still makes room to get loud, though. The ending power ballad of "The Silence" proves to be one of the most rousing songs they've made since the titular song in "Simple Math," and "The Wolf" stands out for its vivacious drumbeat and peppy vocal delivery that juxtaposes the song's crawling pace, though other songs feel a bit derivative of the band's contemporaries, like the heavily-reverbed Lumineers vibe in the opening "The Maze," or the typical arena rock template used for "Lead, SD."
But if there's anything that saves Manchester Orchestra from wearing out the constant lighter-waving mentality of "A Black Mile to the Surface," it’s their smart songwriting that keeps things interesting. Compound time signatures keep power ballads from being more than elementary (as well as being a step above the less elaborate measurements used in "Cope"), and the band use a chord progression motif that weaves the middle stretch of songs into a miniature epic; first appearing at the end of "The Alien," carrying over through "The Sunshine," then finally unfolding into full form in "The Grocery."
Lyrics — 9
More conceptual and convoluted than his lyrics in "Cope," Hull's lyrics in "A Black Mile to the Surface" offer plenty of symbols, themes and phrases to connect between songs, though trying to put it all together to make a clear-cut story is a tough prospect. With a precarious vacillation between being in and out of love shown in the first two songs ("It's only beginning, it's swallowing us / Somebody said it's unspeakable love / It's amazing" in "The Maze"; "You've become my ceiling / I don't love you anymore" in "The Gold"), a more complicated fork in the road comes in "Lead, SD" that spurs contradictory verses ("This is temporary, I just heard I'm gonna be a dad / South Dakota, every winter someone loses it... Is it temporary? I don't want to be a dad / Nobody knew today would be the day he loses it").
As narratives start to diverge further, the latter phrase of someone going crazy carries over into "The Grocery," where the person in the song goes to a store (possibly a reprise of the setting in "Lead, SD") and shoots up the place ("So you walk in the grocery and you unload several rounds / 'Don't you dare move a muscle'"); this scene then seems to carry over into "The Wolf," where a woman is shot in a store near the imagery of baby products ("In the blink of an eye, there's a hole in your belly / Your body recoils ironically to the family planning aisle"), which also reprises the first line in "The Grocery" ("'I don't know where I'm going / I'm going anyway'"). Yet a couple songs later, a more heartfelt narrative of the birth of a couple's child is found in "The Parts" ("Both your legs up, you're crying / Trying to push a life out from your belly / I'm a water boy, overwhelmed by the screaming"). Maybe Hull structured the lyrics to be something of a "choose your own adventure" type of story, or maybe he's just being unapologetically elusive, but either way, the contrasting scenes of joy and tragedy he paints in "A Black Mile to the Surface" are certainly captivating.
Overall Impression — 8
Staying the course of constant change the band have maintained with every album, "A Black Mile to the Surface" distinguishes itself from Manchester Orchestra's other albums by being a bona fide power ballad record, and it fits well in the chronology. Acting as a foil to the rock energy exerted extensively in "Cope," the album also manages to be an appropriate descendant of the mature songwriting aspirations of "Simple Math," and with its shrewd compositions and Hull's powerful lyrics, "A Black Mile to the Surface" proves that Manchester Orchestra can blow the listener away by ways other than cranking the amps up to 11.