Manchester Orchestra – Cope
by Terence Cawley (Biology), published May 22nd 2014
Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!
In recent interviews, Manchester Orchestra frontman Andy Hull has been touting his band’s latest album, COPE, as a back-to-basics rock album, in what is no doubt an attempt to win back fans alienated by the band’s previous effort, 2011’s overambitious concept album Simple Math. While Manchester Orchestra have wisely chosen to ditch the literal orchestra and stick to the guitar-drums-bass-vocals approach they utilized so well on their greatest album, 2009’s Mean Everything to Nothing, COPE fails to reach the same heights as the band’s past LPs.
The album starts strong with two propulsive rockers, “Top Notch” and “Choose You.” On these songs, Manchester Orchestra play to their strengths with guitar hero riffs and Hull’s anthemic (if slightly adenoidal) choruses. An album full of songs this energetic would have been a blast, but over the next few tracks, COPE’s greatest flaw becomes obvious: the whole thing kind of sounds the same. The musical formula for each song is simple: start with loud power chords, palm mute them during the verses to make them slightly less loud, then let the intro riff play at maximum volume again as Hull yelps the chorus. There are some variations, like the piano which adds much-needed color to “Indentions,” but not enough to keep the album engaging over its entire 38-minute run time. On previous albums, Manchester Orchestra excelled at building tension by alternating between quiet, almost whispered passages and ferocious, screaming catharsis, sometimes within the same song. While the individual songs on COPE all have catchy enough vocal melodies and guitar hooks to be enjoyable individually, the band’s refusal to play these songs with dynamics makes them all blur together into a single dull roar.
One can count on Hull to deliver a handful of great lines per Manchester Orchestra album, while the majority of his lyrics lean too heavily on poetic depth through vagueness to mean much of anything. Hull pushes this tendency towards obtuseness, and almost self-parody, with the lyrics on COPE. Is the line “God is all of the time/Red box, wood Baptist sign tonight” from “Indentions” meant to be logically interpreted, or is it just supposed to sound meaningful when Hull emotes it? Still, the lyrics succeed in complementing the mood of each song, and Hull gets off enough neat phrases to show promise as a lyricist. He almost fulfills this potential with “Top Notch,” but what starts as a direct and haunting story about two twin boys soon becomes muddled with portentous nonsense about temporal tones and apathetic winds. Maybe previous Manchester Orchestra albums were equally suspect lyrically and listeners just didn’t notice because of stronger songwriting.
Manchester Orchestra are too talented to make a truly bad album, and, despite all of the flaws detailed above, COPE is a fairly enjoyable rock album. However, it lacks the emotional heft which gave albums like I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child and Mean Everything to Nothing such an important place in the hearts of Manchester Orchestra’s fans. With Andy Hull no longer sounding haunted by the angst and desperation which drove his band’s best work, COPE most closely recalls not the band’s early masterstrokes, but instead those early-2000’s Weezer albums in which Rivers Cuomo wrote sterile hard rock without the messy humanity which used to make his music so unique. COPE is the sound of a very good band that used to strive for greatness growing slightly too comfortable in its own skin.
Recommended Tracks: Top Notch, Choose You, Cope