Manchester Orchestra had always prided themselves on their approach. The Atlanta-based band, led by singer/lyricist Andy Hull with Robert McDowell (who is also Hull's brother-in-law and lifelong friend), had spent their career challenging each other to build a poignant, exhilarating narrative with each new album and EP. The band had worked relentlessly to cultivate a passionate fan base the old-fashioned way: releasing music, making music videos, and touring (most recently with drummer Tim Very and bassist Andy Prince). Their previous long-player, 2014's Cope, had even spawned a cover album of itself by its creators, an acoustic- reworking and reimagining of its songs with a heavily emotional bent that they called Hope. But now - thirty years old, stable, and a first-time father - Hull found himself facing a crisis of inspiration. Since the beginning, each subsequent Manchester Orchestra album had been a grand statement for that specific moment in their career, originated in a desire to push themselves forward creatively. The desire to achieve greatness is often followed by a need for that same desire to evolve. So, for a musician used to writing out of self-refection, what do you sing about when life is good? For a band on record number five and seeking innovation, how do you untangle yourself from the past? How do you write songs about being happy?
It was becoming clear that they required a completely new approach from an entirely different sphere and set of faculties - and, lo and behold, just such a moment arrived when Hull and McDowell were offered the chance to score a movie. In the midst of the Cope/Hope LP release cycle, the directing duo The Daniels - who had created a dense, theatrical music video for Manchester Orchestra's "Simple Math" in 2011, winning Vimeo's "Music Video of the Year" in the process - countered Hull and McDowell's request for them to work on another video with the idea of scoring the directors' in-the-works feature film debut, Swiss Army Man. They had never written a film score before, but the pair of musicians happily rose to the challenge. Swiss Army Man was a weird - albeit cult - Sundance hit, and the film's New York Times-lauded "marvelously melancholic music" earned rave reviews around the world. Riding that excitement, Hull and McDowell decamped to a cabin near Asheville, North Carolina, with bandmates Very and Prince to write a new record. Inspired by their experience creating the score, they seized the chance to rethink Manchester Orchestra's typical methods of working.
Describing a rock record as "cinematic" usually implies a double-length, sprawling album with a full orchestra on every song; A Black Mile to the Surface is cinematic in that it conjures worlds. There's magical surrealism at work, with songs about a boy with no ears ("The Alien") and the father/sleeping child callback of "The Sunshine." There's a story to parse here - three brothers, an abandoned wife and child, a mysterious journey through the depths of a miles-deep mine, a narrative of twists and turns, recurring characters, alternating timelines - but the songs and melodies stand on their own.
A Black Mile to the Surface is a bold record of vision and purpose, inspired by and dwelling in a sensory and imaginative experience. It's a reinvention of sorts, both musically and personally - a sort of cosmic worldview shift. But in the end, the record's themes are universal. On the stunning final track, Hull sings, "Let me watch you as close as a memory/ Let me hold you above all the misery/ Let me open my eyes and be glad that I got here." Certainly, that's a father speaking hope to his daughter, but it's also a message to listeners. How do you write songs about being happy? With your eyes wide open, your loved ones in front of you, and the misery of the world waiting just outside the door.