If you’ve had your ear anywhere close to the ground in the past 3 years, chances are you’ve heard the rumblings of Manchester Orchestra’s stampeding hype machine slowly nearing. The band’s debut full-length I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child was an almost instant success after it’s 2006 release. Many believe this largely due to the very strong backing by scene-heavyweight Jesse Lacey. Combining dynamic pop songs with scathing building anthems, and whispered ballads, Virgin steadily became a cult-classic. Since then, the anticipation for their second album has been slowly swelling. Fast forward nearly three years and it’s finally here. Not only does Mean Everything to Nothing live up to its potentially crippling hype, it destroys any notion of a cliched Sophomore Slump.
If there’s one noticeable difference between Mean Everything and it’s predecessor it’s the intensity. Mean Everything is much more produced, and in its sound, dauntingly bigger. Every member of the band has improved leaps and bounds in their instrumentation since Virgin. This intensity is immediately apparent in the paranoid opener “The Only One” as Hull sings “I am the only one that thinks I’m going crazy / and I don’t know what to do. I am the only son of a pastor I know / who does the things I do” The album’s introducing lines play perfectly into the schizophrenia tinged word play that dominates Hull’s lyrical themes throughout the album.
The gnawing intensity that opens the album seeps into the subsequent 5 tracks, making the first half of Mean Everything one of the most powerful first halfs of any album I’ve heard in the past decade. “Shake It Out” is one of the albums best tracks, featuring what is one of the most intense vocal performances that I’ve ever heard by Andy Hull. The pummeling closing of “Shake It Out” then streams right into the album’s first single “I’ve Got Friends”. The track features sugar-poppish keyboard blips, and group sing-alongs making it impossible to forget.
The following track is without a doubt the best song that this band has ever written. “Pride” opens up with an ominous clean guitar part backed by Hull’s intimidated wavering vocals. The track then kicks into a dominating southern-rock sludge sticking true to the bands Atlanta roots. The song builds and falls before it’s thunderous climax as Hull roars “I think I’m dyin!” No matter how many times I play this song, I find it impossible not to foolishly bang my head, with my rock-star air guitar power stance as adrenaline pumps through my blood.
Andy Hull recently stated in an interview that “Theres a difference between people who use God as a way to sleep at night and people are so convicted by their beliefs that they can’t….I’m in category 2.” Hull makes this apparent on one of those most lyrically smart songs on the album. “In My Teeth” features Hull shouting “God spoke a theory straight into my brain, God damn did you mean to do that to me?” and laments “What happens when I don’t know what happens?” Faith and sprituality have always been at the forefront of Hulls lyrics and while it seems to have been toned down somewhat on Mean Everything, it is no less apparent here.
After the onslaught of the opening first half, the album tones down considerably, starting with the short, anxiety packed “100 Dollars” which is followed by the heart-tugging ballad “I Can Feel A Hot One” (released on the bands Let My Pride… EP in late 2008). The following two tracks “My Friend Marcus” and “Tony The Tiger” get as close to “forgettable” as anything on this album. While ultimately the two songs are enjoyable and play a dynamic part in the album as a whole, they aren’t as engaging or immediately fulfilling as the rest of the album. The title track “Mean Everything to Nothing” contains some of the albums most memorable lyrics (“I found a note in my grandfathers coat and when I read it out loud I got cold.”) but becomes a little bit formulaic after the second chorus. The album closer “The River” pales in comparison to Virgin’s “Where Have You Been?” but follows the same juxtaposed lyrical theme of Hull’s daily religious struggles. The song bleeds repentance and confession in brutal honest fashion to an invisible God where Hull sings the lines “I’m gonna leave you the first chance I get.”, then later closes the song pleading “Oh my God, make me clean again.”
It is apparent that when Manchester Orchestra set out to write this album, they went with clear intentions to make a masterpiece, and a masterpiece is exactly what they have delivered. In an industry where we are constantly being subjected to bands intent on selling us an image rather than a song, it’s refreshing to see a band come along and create something so naturally beautiful and unforced. And for that, Manchester Orchestra deserve all the acclaim in the world.
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