words & interview by ben tipple
The lyrical climax of Manchester Orchestra’s stunning A Black Mile To The Surface LP comes in its most understated moment. “I still want to know each part of you,” Andy Hull softly sings in his distinctive and haunting voice on “The Parts”. It’s a dedication to his wife, not necessarily a new theme for Hull’s words, but also to his newborn daughter.
The momentous occasion in Hull’s life has understandably caused a shift in Manchester Orchestra’s music. What started out as a bleak concept record built an isolated old mining town in South Dakota quickly grew into a different beast. Hull, overwhelmed by the birth of his daughter, found himself separated from the concept’s story.
A Black Mile To The Surface instead treads the line in-between. In part capturing the desolation, claustrophobia and mythology of the album’s original concept, it entwines with a newfound hopefulness from Hull’s growing family. The bleak ambiguity of the record is matched by personal revelations dotted throughout.
“When I listen to it now, it really does feel like more of a personal record than I had originally thought it was going to be,” Hull admits. It’s evident from the opening moments. “The Maze” lays out his polar outlook on life and death. Playing with words, Hull reflects on the beauty of the unknown.
The mythology of the record, as Hull puts it, allowed him to delve into that personal space. “Two or three weeks into the record when I was mapping out roughly how it was going to connect together, I realised it was going to be more of a stretch for me to fit the whole concept in,” Hull recalls. “I felt like I needed more connection to it.”
A Black Mile To The Surface built from there. The concept, his seeming fascination with birth and death, provided the foundation for what now reflects himself. “The lyrics just sort of started coming together more and more, that’s when I realised it was so personal.” But at a certain point the concept became a barrier. ”I had to break the third wall,” Hull explains. The record switched from story to autobiographical. It grew into an exploration of life.
“When my daughter was born my centre of importance shifted,” Hull opens up. “That really caused a domino effect in my brain about family, and the consistent changing of life. How there are all these layers.” It served as an existential awakening: “I got fascinated with the circle of life, and how to explore that lyrically.”
In stark contrast to the birth of his daughter in “The Parts”, A Black Mile To The Surface often plays with death. “There is nothing I’ve got when I die that I keep,” lingers in the album’s opening track. It’s evidence of Hull’s irreversible shift in priority. From there, Hull wrestles with love, loss and hope. The record builds up to the final words, “Let me open my eyes and be glad that I got here.”
“I got here despite the terrible shit happening the world,” Hull says of the hopeful conclusion. “There’s a fear of bringing a child into the world. Ultimately it’s a record about love and loss, but keeping you head down, moving forward and being grateful.”
It’s not just his lyrical perspectives that have changed. Family has changed the way Hull approaches everything. “It makes me more dedicated,” he notes. “A lot less smoking weed and sitting in the studio for twelve hours. When we are in there I’m taking time away from my family seriously. When I’m away from them I don’t want to be wasting time. It’s made me more focussed.”
This focus runs throughout the veins of A Black Mile To The Surface. Their best album yet, it’s possible to feel Hull’s internal struggles and ultimate hope, to find empathy even without living the same experiences. This is found in the close atmospherics of the sound, and in the ambiguity of Hull’s lyrics.
“The Grocery”, perhaps the heaviest track on the record in lyrical terms, merges a story of an armed robbery with Hull’s self-proclaimed personal crisis. From an outsider perspective, there are themes of theology, violence, love and loss. There’s a clear internal battle played out through a tale of death. As with much of A Black Mile To The Surface, it’s both liberating and dense.
“It’s a super personal song to me,” Hull explains. “I broke my own rules on that one. There’s some time-travelling going on. The mythology of the record is engrained in that one for sure. Ultimately though, I do see that song as a hopeful one. It can be interpreted in different ways. I want people to be able to interpret it in the way they want to.”
Hull remains deliberately vague. The magic, and I don’t use that word lightly, of A Black Mile To The Surface sits in interpretation. There are clear stories: the birth of his daughter, the love of his wife, and his exploration of life and death. Underneath that lays mystery: the offshoot of the concept that never was, the midpoint between Hull’s personal exploration and the wider story.
“Ambiguity in music, and people being able to translate and be inspired, is the most important part,” Hull concludes. With that, I’ll be getting lost in A Black Mile To The Surface for years to come.