In a similar way that Madison Square Gardens is neither a garden, square nor on Madison Avenue, the Manchester Orchestra are not from the north-west of England, nor do they sound like an orchestra. Sadly, they don’t perform full-blown orchestral versions of baggy Madchester classics either (although there’s an idea…)
No, Manchester Orchestra are actually a frighteningly young five piece from Atlanta Georgia, led by 19 year old Andy Hull. Hull’s tender years are deceptive – as well as the full beard that he’s saddled himself with, his songs have a depth of maturity and darkness that make it hard to believe that he’s still in his teens.
There may not be anything too original about Manchester Orchestra – angst-filled rock has had many purveyors after all – but what makes the band so special is Hull’s multi-layered songs which pack a real emotional punch. It may be heavily influenced by The Bends-era Radiohead, but Hull stops his band being damned as mere copyists by the sheer power of his songs.
Take Now That You’re Home for example – beginning with a jangly guitar, it soon transforms into a foot-stomping rocker with guitars that nearly tear your speaker about. There’s Arcade Fire style tempo-changes, all wrapped up in a melody that would sound perfectly at home in a stadium, small club or even a bedroom. It takes some balls to pull that off.
Hull’s voice may prove an acquired taste – it can be a bit whiney, and often he comes across as a less sinister Brian Moloko. Yet his cracked vocals are perfect for this material – the intense cry of “God, where have you been” he brings to the atmospheric Where Have You Been would be very difficult for most singers to pull off, let alone a newcomer like Hull.
He also has an eye-catching way with a lyric – be it cryptic (“when you look at me, I’ll be digesting your legs” from the aforementioned Where Have You Been), dark (“I heard that I was close to dying, IVs and dirty drips for the cause” from The Neighbourhood Is Bleeding) or just memorable (Wolves At Night’s brilliant opening couplet of “I could have sworn that I saw you knee-bent on the bedside, arms stretched like a kite that time will eventually grow”).
The lyrical themes explored here include crisis of faith in Now That You’re Home, while I Can Feel Your Pain deals with loss and bereavement in an astonishingly mature and affecting way. “I was scared to call your mother, for news that you weren’t getting better” mutters Hull, and only Eels have covered similarly dark topics in such an articulate manner.
Manchester Orchestra isn’t just Hull and others though – his band transform these songs into muscular, heavy workouts, with Jeremiah Edmonds battering the hell out of his drumkit like Dave Grohl on I Can Barely Breathe, or the twin guitars of Hull and Robert McDowell combining to blistering effect on Now That You’re Home. They know when to take down a notch too, with the beautiful Don’t Let Them See You Crying seeing Hull alone with an acoustic guitar.
Closing track Colly Strings is the perfect ending for the album, quiet and brooding until bursting into a huge wall of sound. “Besides, we can’t believe without bleeding” runs the final line, summing up the ultimate message of the album.
I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child is one of the best debuts of 2007 – intense, emotional, but also uplifting and energetic. It’s a remarkable achievement, and marks Andy Hull and his band out as ones to watch over the coming years.