Manchester Orchestra, ‘Hope’ – Album Review
It’s difficult enough to write one truly great album. Manchester Orchestra, however, are such masters of their craft, they can write the same truly great album twice (with diametrically opposed aesthetics) -- and make it genuinely amazing both times.
Since bursting out of Atlanta with ‘I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child’ in 2006, the band have already released two arguable masterpieces -- 2009’s expectation-annihilating ‘Mean Everything to Nothing’ and 2011’s darkly intricate ‘Simple Math.’ But it was with their fourth album -- 2014’s ‘Cope’ -- that frontman Andy Hull and his brethren followed their most unfettered and guitar-driven indulgences, unleashing what was undeniably their heaviest and most visceral album to date.
But after fans responded with overwhelming positivity earlier this year to an acoustic version the band performed of ‘Top Notch,’ the preternaturally prolific Hull (who has also released two albums under the Kevin Devine collaboration Bad Books and four with his solo project Right Away, Great Captain!) was inspired to revisit the other 10 songs on ‘Cope’ from a similarly stripped-down angle.
Not so much an unplugged version of ‘Cope’ as much as it is a complete re-imagining, ‘Hope’ features the same songs in the same order, but each built again from the ground up with a renewed focus on the intensely personal lyrics and intrinsic beauty within. While ‘Cope’ is a quintessential album for a road trip under the sweltering summer sun, ‘Hope’ is a perfect soundtrack for night driving on vast stretches of desolate highway. With far more in common with Bon Iver than Bon Scott, the album serves as a unique bookend to ‘Cope,’ but it’s still strong enough to stand on its own.
Juxtapose each song from ‘Cope’ with its new ‘Hope’ version, and each retains a varying level of faithfulness to the original: some are loosely deconstructed with the addition of atmospheric and epic production (‘Choose You’ and ‘Girl Harbor') while others take on brand new life entirely. ‘The Ocean’ is a piano-driven ballad, ‘Every Stone’ swells from a simple backing organ into a near symphony, ‘All That I Wanted’ shifts from the original Weezer-inspired rocker into a layered confessional in the vein of Right Away, Great Captain!’s ‘Devil Dressed in Blue’ and ‘Indentions’ is expanded from a more standard Manchester composition into something more akin to a U2 or Kings of Leon arena filler. Some of the songs shift lyrical focus, too, both subtly (‘See it Again’) and overtly (‘Trees’).
The entire album, however, demonstrates the incredible range of Manchester Orchestra. It’s difficult to believe any of their peers (except maybe the Dear Hunter) could pull off such an ambitious endeavor and there’s little chance the Postal Service could ever flip the script and create a hard-rocking version of ‘Give Up.’ ‘Hope’ is indebted in pieces to Justin Vernon, Modest Mouse and the Beach Boys, and its complexity and scope might be hailed right alongside the likes of Alt-J if it were written as a completely original album. But since it’s irrevocably linked to ‘Cope,’ it likely won’t receive quite the appreciation it deserves. Still, it’s a gift to Manchester fans -- one few could’ve seen coming -- and a welcome introduction to the band for those who have yet to jump on board with one of the most daring and accomplished acts of their era.