IT IS MOST CERTAINLY not a divorce record. It just sounds like one. The third full-length from Manchester Orchestra, Simple Math doesn't belong in the gilded pantheon of heart-shattering separation albums like Here, My Dear or Blood on the Tracks, primarily because while the record is the dreadful sound of a splintered marriage and the battered remnants of young love divided, it's also an album about a union that survives.
The husky son of two generations of Southern preachers, it's no surprise that Manchester Orchestra's Andy Hull is an impassioned individual, one who defies his band's earnest sound with a large commanding nature when perched behind a microphone. His voice a wounded animal—a lispless peer to Isaac Brock—Hull's sedulous delivery and gushing pen painted Manchester Orchestra into a corner early on, as their I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child debut garnered far too many comparisons to the shameful scourge that is modern-day emo. The vague veil of Christianity that draped the recording probably didn't help things either.
Yet Manchester Orchestra's vehement sincerity was absolutely genuine. By the time Mean Everything to Nothing was (not quite immaculately) conceived in 2009, the band had risen to the rarified air of exalted alt-rock band, nationally headlining, playing festivals, and fixtures on late-night television. Yet as the release cycle slowed to a cautious crawl for that album, Hull returned home from a seemingly endless slate of touring to find his marriage in ruins. A stranger in his own home—his Springsteenian "One Step Up" moment, if you will—Hull dedicated himself to patching up his personal life before he dove headlong into the process of creating a new album.
The writing process started with 100 songs or so. From there, Hull & Co. demoed those down, neatly trimming that number until they had 27 songs, then more editing, and finally a concise 10 were left standing. In order to prevent the record, which would eventually be titled Simple Math, from falling into the sticky fingers of online thieves, the band digitally cloaked their work under the name "Lil' Bow Wow" (ironic, since based on sheer sales figures alone, a Lil' Bow Wow track seems more likely to be pirated). Even despite their best efforts, this painfully autobiographical recording wouldn't remain a secret forever.
Simple Math opens with the tentative and apologetic "Deer," a song so unsure of itself that it feels like the band just might quit halfway through the first verse, packing up their equipment and hitting the studio lights on their way out. Hull's confidence will appear later, but for the first three minutes or so of Simple Math, he is a man in tatters, less the bold voice of a well-received rock and roll band, and more a man reading from a scrolling list of regrets. This remorse extends from his battered marriage ("I sit home and drink alone and hope that bottle speaks/like you, like us, like me"), his façade of a personal life ("Dear everyone I ever really knew/I acted like an asshole so I could keep my edge on you"), and even to the sanctuary of the stage ("Dear everybody that has paid to see my band/it's still confusing, I'll never understand"). For a record that is absolutely thunderous at times, it's an unlikely opening—the sobs before the storm.
From there Manchester Orchestra returns to what they do best: bombastic rock songs that don't skimp on the dramatic details. In addition to a newfound Pink Floyd influence (a lyrical mention to being "comfortably numb," plus yet another "Another Brick in the Wall [Part 2]" choir of kids singing dire lyrics on the album's single, "Virgin"), Simple Math uses Hull's crumbling union as a jumping-off point. Named for the worst city in the worst state in the union—if you have ever been there, surely you'd agree—"Pensacola" is the band's crowning moment, a restless song of unsettled urgency, abrupt tempo changes, a sudden chorus of shouted vocals, and lyrics that touch on the malaise of middle age ("I'm tired of talking to a wall when I could talk to someone else"). Such lyrical topics are not foreign soil for Hull. The slumped-shouldered acceptance of middle-age settling is a topic he's been flirting with for three albums now, which is surprising considering that the Manchester Orchestra singer is firmly entrenched in his mid-20s.
Like any good tale, redemption comes in the final act, which in this case is the closing number "Leaky Breaks." While Hull touches on the pain that courses through Simple Math, there is an element of closure here. In a recording full of raw exposed nerves and separations that linger beyond the horizon, Manchester Orchestra emerge not quite triumphant, but resilient and united. Sometimes that's all you need to keep it together.