A Black Mile To The Surface by Manchester Orchestra

Review by Marissa Jackson

Cover photo by Nolan Knight.

Cover photo by Nolan Knight.

“I’m a maze to you”. This is one of the opening lyrics for the first song on Manchester Orchestra’s latest release, A Black Mile To The Surface. I think this lyric accurately describes the fascinating project that these Atlanta boys have created over the years. Their underappreciated debut album, I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child, clearly has the sound of a typical young and angst-driven rock band. Fast forward ten years and their newest album evokes a melancholy sense of reflection built on an intricate, and at times hard to decipher, storyline. Ever since I started listening to Manchester Orchestra four years ago I have been in awe of how captivating their musical journey has been. Each album has it’s own story, it’s own power to evoke emotions, and connect with the listener.


Manchester Orchestra is a maze of a band because of how many different paths (i.e. side projects) their love of music has turned into (Right Away, Great Captain!, Bad Books, Gobotron, soundtrack for Swiss Army Man, etc.). It’s pretty evident that the men in this band have a passion for making music. They’re also a maze because of how intricate their lyrics are and all of the possible interpretations they can produce. Even though the band obviously has a set meaning for each song, it takes a few listens and looking up the actual lyrics to understand some of them. When you do understand a lyric the sheer magnitude of its meaning can hit you like a ton of bricks (but in a good way). This characteristic they have developed over the years has not changed one bit with A Black Mile To The Surface. So, let’s talk about why this might actually be one of my favorite albums of 2017.


I have been waiting for new music from Manchester Orchestra since I first dove deeper into them in 2013. The album of that year, Cope, is a total powerhouse. A year after falling in love with the band I got to be front row to see them play at my university that summer. Let me tell ya, if you have the chance to see Manchester Orchestra this fall on their upcoming tour for this new album...DO IT. Their live shows do not disappoint. The band went kind of quiet after that show so I was left to get lost in the artistry of their older albums. Naturally, I was pretty emotional when they posted a cryptic video of the work they were doing in the studio along with three different phone numbers for the US, UK, and AU. As soon as I saw this post I dialed the number to try to figure out what was going on. Turns out it was an extraordinary method for announcing they were going to be releasing a new single on June 9th. I won’t spoil it because listening to the message is a beautiful, music nerd experience that I want more people to have. If you have time or you’re interested, stop reading this and dial 404-575-4463 for the US. The number still works for the last single they released (“The Moth”) before the album’s debut.


On July 28th, 2017 A Black Mile To The Surface was introduced to the world. With great anticipation I pressed play and listened to the entire album straight through. The entire time I knew I was listening to a seamless piece of art. I was going to do a track by track review of this album but since each song just flows so perfectly into the next I figured I would rather just talk about why the whole thing is worth listening to over, and over, and over again. Andy Hull (lead vocals, guitar) recently spoke in an interview about how the album is supposed to be based off living through the winter in a small town in South Dakota. This explains why there is a song called Lead, SD. In my eyes, the harsh physical conditions of winter time are meant to allude to the fact that life can be brutal and there’s usually no way to stop that brutality. Each song touches on a deeper sense of self-reflection, heartache and regret but also feelings of love and personal growth (stemming from Hull’s love for his wife and daughter). I felt like there was a consistent theme of desperation; desperation to understand past mistakes, future possibilities, love, loss, and just surviving life in general. I have not been able to sit down and read through all of the lyrics like I would love to yet, so my interpretations may change. However, like I mentioned before, that is the beauty of the maze that is Manchester Orchestra. I am in love with how the guys pull you in with the fluidity of their instruments and vocals and make you stick around by making you think “what’s really going on here?” when you pay attention to the lyrics.


The production quality of this album is astonishing. I’m not an expert, but anyone who loves music can tell that Manchester Orchestra put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into getting the perfect sound for each song. The drums aren’t too overpowering, the piano is elegant,  Hull’s vocals are cathartic and commanding, and the guitars (like always with this band) have voices of their own. The underlying theme of people talking or messages playing in the background or towards the end of some of the songs is also a unique quality that I fell in love with from the initial phone announcement of the first single. It is also no small feat for a band to come out with a new album after a four year hiatus that pleases old time listeners while still having the ability to draw in new fans. I truly believe that is what Manchester Orchestra has done with this album. They are a band that has a distinct sound that you can easily identify but they have still stretched themselves as artists and created albums that ALL have different vibes, stories, and connections.


In all honesty, I could talk about Manchester Orchestra and A Black Mile To The Surface until I run out of breath or my fingers start hurting from typing so much. So, before I get too rambly I have to say that for me this album should get 10/10 stars. I cannot wait to explore the lyrics more and listen to “The Sunshine” (one of my favorite songs from the album) for the millionth time. I am so proud of these southern dudes for creating a magnificent work of art and I am so grateful that I get to be a fan of theirs. Seriously though, go buy this album and then go buy tickets to see them on this tour because your life needs more Manchester Orchestra in it, trust me.

Listen to A Black Mile To The Surface here.

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