Manchester Orchestra's songs are bigger than ever on A Black Mile to the Surface.Loma Vista Recordings, 2017
8.0 / 10
Before creating the new album, A Black Mile to the Surface, Manchester Orchestra members Andy Hull and Robert McDowell scored a film. This small, weird indie film Swiss Army Man depicts a man’s lonely relationship with a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe), who has multiple purposes which come in handy for the movie’s lonely protagonist. Over time, Radcliffe even seemingly comes to life. Other than the movie’s constant flatulence jokes and Radcliffe, I remember this movie for Hull and McDowell’s score. The music was out there; so interesting and unlike anything in Manchester Orchestra’s catalog. One reason is that Hull and McDowell couldn’t use instruments per the directors’ request. With this difficult task, Hull and McDowell had to think outside of the box. And the results were simply magic.
No surprise then that the creative process which sparked the Swiss Army Man soundtrack is followed on the latest Manchester Orchestra album. However, instruments are present. Quite present. In fact, the band’s music is full of more textures than any of their previous releases. Black Mile is largely still a rock album with some even declaring Manchester Orchestra an emo band. I wouldn’t go that far, but Hull does take this album to dark places. His vocals carry his familiar nasally bellows of pain where it sounds as if he’s on the verge of a breakdown.
Black Mile may or may not represent Hull’s most personal songwriting. Rather than drawing from his life completely, Hull decorates the album with various characters and their perspectives. At times, this narrative follows a man, who works in a mine. Then, there’s also a boy with no ears, who has to deal with bullies. Relationships always seem to be at the forefront as well as battling internal demons. Black Mile is an ever-evolving struggle with extreme moments and some that are less extreme yet impact the heart and soul just the same. It may look like the man is dangerously ascending a tree on the album’s artwork. But maybe it’s just the scrubber for a toilet bowl; the man destined to always be in the shit.
At times Black Mile feels like Manchester Orchestra scoring a new film. The scope is cinematic. Arrangments unravel different layers of riffs, effects, and quiet voices in the background. On “Lead, SD”, the one song that doesn’t begin with “The”, an element in the music resembles a scream. Maybe one tearing through a broken speaker. It’s eerie and unnerving. But the album’s most chilling moment comes on “The Alien”, which stars the boy without ears that I mentioned earlier. Here, it seems that boy’s earless state is the result of a pair of scissors and a drunk, abusive father. The boy ultimately takes his anger out on a school of bullies and people who view him as an alien. Heavy stuff.
But for all of the album’s heaviness, Black Mile ultimately moves its listeners with incredible impact. These songs are deep. Sometimes they start small and stay small as on “The Parts”. Other times, they start small but evolve into sprawling epics as with “The Grocery” (maybe the band’s best song ever). However, maybe Hull reveals the album’s true meaning on “The Mistake”. Here, he sings, “Everybody I know makes the same mistakes/ Packaged up in different boxes/ Masking shame.” Ultimately, we’re all human and none of us are without our faults. That shouldn’t be any reason we can’t connect or come together. An ecstatic “WHOO!” comes from Hull during the song. You’re likely to return it with one of your own.