"I'm looking at my daughter and going, 'You are so perfect and innocent but, eventually, life is going to happen to you. And there's nothing I can do about that.'" Andy Hull says this with the same combination of sincerity and absurdism that he says most things, both on and off his records. He's sitting next to his brother-in-law and long-time collaborator in Manchester Orchestra, Robert McDowell, at a pub in Manhattan and both of them are alternating sips of Belgian beer with surreptitious drags on electronic cigarettes. Hull stares directly at me and speaks a soft Atlantan drawl. "I can try my best to protect [her] and do whatever I can," he says, "but the winter is coming for you, as it comes for all of us." A gentle, overwhelmed smile forms in the middle of his unkempt beard as he realizes the weight of that line, the Game of Thrones allusion within it, and the size of the stakes he's set up.
A Black Mile to the Surface, Manchester Orchestra's fifth studio album, deals with this looming existential terror with a now-typical obliqueness. On one hand, it's a concept album about a small, wintry town in South Dakota that none of Manchester Orchestra's members have ever so much as driven through; on the other, it's a memoir trapped between a stream of first- and second-person pronouns. It's the most lyrically intricate and sonically ambitious record that the band have made. It's also their best.
In many ways, it had to be. Hull started Manchester Orchestra in 2004, his last year of high school, and brought a group of his friends in to back him up early on—that's the "orchestra" that he imagined around himself. Over the last 13 years, the band has worked its way through God-fearing acoustic reckonings, beautifully harmonic rock music, and crushing distortion, always keeping a self-deprecating, sardonic humor close by. With four studio albums—plus three solo records from Hull, two from McDowell, two LPs alongside Kevin Devine as Bad Books, and countless cult-adored demos from the band—Manchester Orchestra were approaching a creative wall.
Hull, now 30, has been married to his wife, Amy, since 2008; his daughter Mayzie was born three years ago. This time around, he tried to write more love songs to his wife and songs of wonder to his daughter. "It sounds bad," he says, "but that wasn't really that inspiring to me. It was like, 'Man, they know I love them!'" So he tried to jolt himself into something different. He remembered what brutal winters were like—he'd spent seven years in Canada as a child when his father had moved to Toronto to pastor. "I remember, every year, the summers were fantastic, and the falls would be amazing, and you'd start to get into the winter and it's like… oh." South Dakota, he figured, was pretty cold. He searched online for pictures of the Midwest state in the winter. It locked in immediately.
With a setting in mind, Hull went about writing lyrics for something that he saw existing between Twin Peaks, the Album and Fargo, the Album: cold, strange, darkly comic. "Fargo, the Album was sort of a story [about] the desolate, the darkness, the 'Oh my God, it's so cold.' And then Twin Peaks the album was the fantastic, imaginative, ulterior, almost magic part of it." Lead, South Dakota—the town that Hull built the record around—is a small town with a population a little over 3,000, and it is bitterly cold. But its existence is stranger than that. The home of the Sanford Underground Research Facility, experiments are done on dark matter—otherworldly particles—underground. Hull had a new world in his head.
When I met with Hull last April before a solo show at The Bell House in Brooklyn, Manchester Orchestra had just completed their first sessions for the album in North Carolina with producer Catherine Marks. Hull was fully invested in the South Dakota concept, describing what would become ...Black Mile as a "really elaborate story." He'd written the "seed" for the album, "Lead, SD," and was excited about exiting himself for a while. "The easiest thing to do is to write about yourself," he told me then. "And then eventually you're going to get to a place where your self is pretty centered, hopefully, and you're pretty good. Things aren't chaotic and you're not a lunatic anymore. That early-30s mid-30s, late-20s, you're starting to glide into adulthood... that's when you have to go and do your research and go find things that inspire you and go find stories that are crazy and go put yourself in those characters' positions and write truthfully from there place."
But, he tells me now, pure concept had its limits. "That time, when I talked to you, that was when I was right in the middle of like, 'All right I'm going to try and map out this crazy, elaborate, connected thing.' And then as that continued and we worked on, I realized that it was sort of getting to be a little bit larger than the concept record." Mayzie was the spark. "My daughter sort of opened up the idea," he says. "I am now just a piece of this bigger story of family and ancestry."
On ...Black Mile, you can hear the grandeur of that story immediately. Opener "The Maze" follows an almost identical structure to "Deer," the first song from the band's 2011 record Simple Math. But, where "Deer" was sarcastic in its bafflement—"Dear everyone who paid to see my band / It's still confusing, I'll never understand"—"The Maze" expands quietly. "Wish me a wonder and wish me to sleep," Hull sings over simple, uncluttered chords. "You don't have to wander to hear when I speak / There is nothing I've got when I die that I keep / It's amazing." He's still confused—"Somebody said it's unspeakable love / Well, you don't believe I can speak well at all / You're a maze to me." But the confusion is beautiful to Hull. The song concludes with an affirmation sung on top of a choir of harmonies: "You lift that burden off of me."
This, Hull says, is the first song that he wrote for his daughter. But like everything that he and Manchester Orchestra have written, it's not clear-cut in context. His lyrics have always been intentionally winding, confusing until the sixth or seventh listen, by which point the listener's understanding is a way off of Hull's source. On the stark, acoustic "I Can Feel Your Pain" from 2006's debut I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child, for example, Hull sang in a croak about the circumstances of a funeral, probably talking to the deceased: "I ran off and ran on to something / That I swore was everything but beautiful / I only say that word for you."
The title track from 2009's Mean Everything to Nothing opens with another indirect idea: "Definitely not the things that i'm seeing / Did I think I'd see so instantly." By the time of Simple Math, Hull had worked these distant allusions into something more pointed. On "Simple Math" itself, a beautiful song about infidelity, he sings about "hunter eyes" and ripping lips, but walks into reverie in the chorus: "What if I was wrong and no one cared to mention? / What if it was true and all we thought was right was wrong?" On Manchester Orchestra records, things can be both far bigger and far smaller than they appear. Sex is a theological crisis; death is just atoms; God has vanished.
So, on ...Black Mile's "Lead, SD," when Hull first hints at the disaster to come on "The Grocery," the character has collapsed into Hull, and Hull has collapsed into himself. "Is it temporary? I don't think I want to be a dad / Nobody knew today would be the day he loses it."
"Like I would ever write that," Hull says now. "In my mind, it was from a character's perspective. But after I wrote that thing I was like, 'Oh yeah, that character's just the dude who thought the exact same way you were thinking.' And then that really started to open up."
If there is a wall between Hull and his characters on ...Black Mile, it's made out of tracing paper. On "The Grocery," he sings over some troublingly pretty guitars, "You walk into the grocery / And unload several rounds / 'Don't you dare move a muscle / Cardboard cutout ads.'" This is character work. Hull told me last year, when the song was in its infancy, that he'd written "a song about a kid who's working at a grocery store, whose girlfriend was pregnant[...] and someone comes into the grocery store and shoots up the grocery store." But here he slips between voices. In the midst of the song's shooting, Hull sings, "I want to feel the way your father felt, was it easy for belief? / I want to know if there's a higher love he saw that I can't see." Hull's father's faith has always run through Manchester Orchestra records, often as a way of highlighting Hull's own questions and crises of theology. He's in the grocery store too.
"The Grocery" is the conclusion of a mid-album trilogy of tracks that should go down as Manchester Orchestra's greatest musical achievement. "The Alien," the album's first single, is one of Hull's most affecting pieces of narrative storytelling, a story of a car crash in his imagined Lead. It touches on small-town insularity, guilt, the supernatural, and family, but again, Hull is completely present—car crashes have always consumed him. "The Sunshine" bridges the gap with more hallucination—"I already know that I don't already know / You are the sunlight"—before "The Grocery" shifts the location but asks similar in new ways. Chord structures and melodies are only gentle variations on a theme throughout the three songs; the only real change is texture.
It the opposite the blanketed heaviness of 2014's Cope and intentional softness of the same year's Hope ("Two sides of the same coin," Hull says now). Some of that comes from a newfound confidence. Between Cope/ Hope and ... Black Mile's first sessions, Hull and McDowell scored Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's strange and charming 2016 movie Swiss Army Man. Half of the music had to be written before shooting, half after; it was all melody and feeling, with less reliance on Hull's lyrics. It was all new; McDowell and Hull pushed themselves.
It confirmed something that McDowell had been convinced of for years. "What [an album] needs to do is affect the listener in a way where, as they're digesting the story, they're relaxed, and in the right headspace emotionally for it." Hull says the project was "a big teacher for us. You can make a song that's fifteen seconds long and it's super impactful." When you can write a quarter-minute melody that moves a listener, an album offers plenty of space.
That confidence wasn't easily expressed—the album was pushed back, Marks came and went, Hull and McDowell were meticulous to the point of compulsion with their ideas . But it has given us Manchester Orchestra's most complete, most impressive, and most emotionally resonant record yet. I remind Hull of an interview from the band's early years, when he declared, quite nonchalantly, that they wanted to be "the biggest band in the world." Their idea has changed slightly, he says laughing, from wanting to be "the greatest, biggest band in the world, to being the greatest band in the world." Or, at least, "Every single record has to be the best record that you can make, in the year that you make it."
Hull says that as a compulsive student of songwriting. He's always wanted to tap into the songwriters that move him: Loudon Wainwright III, John K Samson, and—in ways he admits he'll never be able to replicate—Young Thug. On "The Parts," ...Black Mile's penultimate song, he does so beautifully. It's a song that traces Hull's relationship with his wife, and he is nowhere near South Dakota; he's back home. It's closer, more specific, and in its way, more strikingly beautiful than anything Hull has written before: "A yellow SUV / Britney Spears on the ceiling / You'd look my way but you weren't talking to me." Then he jumps forward to the birth of their daughter: "Give it 13 years / Both your legs up, you're crying / Trying to push a life out from your belly." He returns to the same line every time: "I want to know each part of you."
"I got very literal about being in the hospital room with my wife as she's giving birth. I feel like that kind of thing... I feel more complete after a song like that." He laughs because, again, he's realized that the stakes are high now. "So then I think that's something I feel like I have to share."
Alex Robert Ross knows how to play "50 Cent" on guitar. Follow him on Twitter.