Manchester Orchestra, and its frontman Andy Hull, have never been the type to put all their eggs in one basket, nor have they been easy to pin down to any specific genre. Though they borrow heavily from the loud ‘n’ dirty ’90s rock canon, they aren’t strangers to innovation and subtlety either. On their last LP, 2011’s Simple Math, the band threw anything and everything onto the canvas, and most of it stuck. They embrace dynamics, not afraid to have syrupy string arrangements rubbing shoulders with huge, crunchy riffs, or gut-wrenchingly honest ballads stacked up against bombastic anthems, but their big strength is in the cohesion of it all. If Simple Math codified their ‘sound’ with its sheer variety, Cope is, if anything, a bit of a step backwards. Manchester Orchestra have always peppered their albums with huge riffs, (see ‘Now That You’re Home’, ‘I’ve Got Friends’, ‘Pensacola’) but Cope uses this aesthetic as its guiding star. The album hits far more than it misses, but it lacks the true nuanced beauty that makes its predecessors so impressive.
The single ‘Top Notch’ dropped well in advance of the album, and it had me quite excited. It has a seething, pounding and huge riff, and that chorus… Andy Hull’s impassioned wail soaring over the turgid sea behind it. I was surprised, when I finally got my hands on the album, that ‘Top Notch’ was its opening number, but it made sense… the band had previously stated that Cope would be an ‘unashamedly heavy rock record’, and to place ‘Top Notch’ where it was is a good choice to set the tone. Unfortunately, while the next few tracks are also great, it seems that the energy the opener brought to the table never quite goes away. It’s as if Cope plateaus right out of the gate. There are no ballads on here, far fewer softer moments instrumentally. Everything on here is catchy and Hull’s lyrics are still interesting (‘the invention of the ship/Was the invention of the shipwreck) but the distortion-heavy guitars never quite let up, leaving each song uncomfortably reminiscent of the last, and while the strings and synth that used to counter-balance them do show up occasionally on cuts like ‘Trees’. That’s not to say that Manchester Orchestra doesn’t do this sound justice, they certainly do, but this record doesn’t show them playing to their real strengths and sees them falling into a softer-verse/loud-chorus pattern that makes me miss the tenderness and variety of their previous albums.
But Cope suffers mainly in comparison. Someone unfamiliar with the band’s earlier output will still find an impassioned, balls-to-the-wall assault that packs more than its fair share of emotional punch, too. The title, Cope is reflected in the stories of resilience and letting go in the face of adversity. Reading like a Steinbeck novel, ‘All I Really Wanted’ is a standout, with lyrics about uprooting and facing the storm for the promise of a home, while ‘The Ocean’ sees its narrator casting his flaws into the metaphorical body of water. Its black-and-white cover is quite fitting too, for the stripped back crunchy rock contained therein. The sonic assault continues all the way to the final and title track, whose Sabbath-esque riff finishes things off in an equally epic fashion to the beginning.
The songs here are, for the most part, great tunes. And bombastic rock fits these guys like a glove. But listened through, the album becomes something of a slog, simply for its unrelenting energy, and it could definitely have benefited from some of the nuance and texture upon which Manchester Orchestra have built their name. Still, if you want big, beefy, passionate and literary noise, Cope has it in spades.
TRACK PICKS: Top Notch, The Mansion, Every Stone
TRACK SKIPS: Choose You