Mean Everything To Nothing, the second album from Atlanta’s Manchester Orchestra, is everything you want a rock record to be: raw, urgent, emotional, and 100 percent authentic. “There is nothing fake about this record,” says frontman and lyricist Andy Hull. “There’s not one fake sound on it. We recorded it live because we wanted it to sound like a band, and I think it does: live and loud!”
Inspired by the pounding, primal assault of Weezer’s Pinkerton, Nirvana’s In Utero, and Foo Fighters’ The Colour and the Shape, this young band has created its own version of what a classic rock album should sound like, complete with fiercely beautiful melodies, shifting guitar and keyboard textures, loud/soft dynamics, and an urgency in each band member’s performance, especially Hull’s cathartic vocals.
The drama is magnified by the fact that the album’s first six songs bleed into one another without stopping. The blistering opener “The Only One” immediately gives way to the propulsive “Shake It Out” and the torrential first single “I’ve Got Friends,” followed by the anguished “Pride” and the menacing “In My Teeth,” before slowing down on the darkly funny “100 Dollars.” Then the album pauses and down-shifts into less relentless yet equally gripping territory on songs from “I Can Feel A Hot One” (which was featured on Gossip Girl last September), to the ruminative closer “The River.”
The breakneck pace is both exhilarating and exhausting, which Hull says was intentional. “I like the fact that there isn’t a chance during the first six songs to say anything if you’re listening to it with somebody. It’s seamless. We did that to emphasize that there are two halves to the album.” The first half is a brooding tale of teenage angst and anger — the confusion and disillusionment of growing up and becoming an adult. The second half is about redemption and an overall re-evaluation of the self. It’s about Hull beginning to realize in his own words “that things are not ok, I am not ok, and there’s a beauty in that — a calming, a forgiveness,” he says.
A fully realized album, Mean Everything To Nothing is the sound of a band coming into its own after spending 300 days on the road in support of their debut album, 2007’s I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child — a coming-of-age chronicle that expressed the then 19-year-old Hull’s hopes and aspirations as he sought spiritual knowledge. Virgin was an attention-getting shot across the bow that Rolling Stone praised as “expansive in scope and rich in texture, even while remaining lyrically focused on small moments of revelation” and the New York Times called “music to swoon to.” But whereas the songs on the debut were voiced by a fictional cast of characters that Hull created to obscure his own emotions, the intensely personal songs on Mean Everything To Nothing are all him. “I was able to be more honest when singing as someone else,” admits Hull, who is now 22. “Now I’ve realized, although it’s incredibly difficult, it’s more powerful to just say it myself.”
Although Hull writes all the lyrics, he describes the process of making Mean Everything to Nothing as more collaborative than that of its predecessor. “Writing the album was such a joy for me because the things these guys contributed were insane,” Hull says. “I had plenty of suggestions and opinions, but the parts are theirs. This was not a one-man show. Jeremiah is patient and wise; he’d make me play a song five times before jumping in during our writing rehearsals. Robert’s talent and creativity are obvious throughout the album. His vocals, keys, and guitar parts shine in moments where you don’t expect them to. Jonathan has always been an amazing bassist, but on this album he let go with more freedom in writing his parts than he has before. And Chris doesn’t really play keys, it’s more like lead guitar. Most of the moments that sound like a crazy guitar are actually keyboard. He really made the record his own by writing ambient swells, piercing tones, and adding chunky, beefy distortion.”
Indeed the band’s chemistry is palpable on Mean Everything To Nothing, perhaps because, after more than a year of touring with such artists as Kings of Leon, Brand New, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Say Anything, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, as well as performing their own headlining shows, Manchester Orchestra has become a powerful and well-oiled machine. “The touring made us so incredibly tight on all levels,” Hull says, “so there was no pride involved if someone said, ‘No that doesn’t work, don’t do that.’ No one got their feelings hurt because we were all dedicated to the same thing — making the best record we could.”
The band were supported in the process by their producers, studio vet Joe Chiccarelli (The Shins, My Morning Jacket, The Raconteurs) in conjunction with longtime friend and producer Dan Hannon and the band. “Joe is the absolute tone master,” Hull says. “The sounds he gets are so good. We wrote these songs so quickly and he was great in helping us do surgery to make them better. When Dan came in, it was like fresh blood pumping through the project. He’d move five knobs and click a few things and it was like, ‘Oh shit, that’s great.’ The whole thing was a great collaboration.”
Recorded last fall in Nashville and Atlanta, the album was made on the heels of a very active period for the band. In 2008, they played several major U.S. festivals, including Coachella and Lollapalooza, and released a five-song EP, Let My Pride Be What’s Left Behind, in October. Included with the EP is a DVD of the previously unreleased What’s Left Behind documentary film of the band directed by Sam Erickson (My Morning Jacket’s Okonokos). In addition, Hull released The Eventually Home — the second installment of his epic solo project Right Away, Great Captain, which tells the ongoing saga of a 17th-century sailor who catches his wife in an act of betrayal with his own brother. All of Hull’s and Manchester Orchestra’s output is released on Favorite Gentleman Recordings, the indie label Hull and Edmond founded in 2004 as a way to stay in control of their music and to pass along the good fortune of their own success by signing other artists, like Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Kevin Devine.
“It’s all been great,” Hull says, “but I’d have to say the best thing about the past year has been developing the brotherhood the five of us have. This band has been through hard times and come out stronger than ever before. That’s what makes it worth it.”
Mean Everything To Nothing will be released by Favorite Gentlemen/Canvasback on April 21st, 2009.