Listen to Simple Math, the new album from Atlanta's Manchester Orchestra, and it quickly becomes evident that it is a very personal affair. A concept album, it's thematically wrapped up in reflections on the life, marriage and spiritual journey of singer/songwriter/bandleader Andy Hull.
But even though this achingly honest confessional work explores Hull's failures, hopes and realizations, it's also very much a band effort, both in content and execution. The frontman's talented mates alternate between stately introspective brooding and bracing indie-rock outbursts.
"It works because we all are very close," explains Manchester Orchestra keyboardist and co-founder Chris Freeman. "We don't have many other friends. We're together all the time. All the stuff that Andy talks about on the record, we saw. Nobody was surprised. It was therapeutic for us as a band to go through the making of the album with what happened with him, with his wife and his walk with God."
Described by Hull as "a dueling conversation between my wife, God and myself," Simple Math is the band's third album, as long as you don't count 2004's Nobody Sings Anymore, which was never officially released. The new work opens in a soft confessional mode, before building up to the powerful, pain-filled assault of "Pale Black Eye." From there, it immediately shifts into the spacious, sprawling "Virgin," a look at the band and Hull's relationship, anchored by the chanted phrase, "It's never gonna be the same."
There's more where that came from. The title cut is a heartbreaking ballad about an affair, followed up by songs about arguments between Hull and his wife, more confessions and, finally, a glimmer of hope.
Given its themes, Simple Math seems like it should have been a difficult album to create. But by retaining much the same approach as 2009's breakthrough Mean Everything to Nothing album — which was also recorded at Nashville's Blackbird Studio with producer Dan Hannon — it turned out to be the opposite.
"It was an easy record for us to make, it was very natural," Freeman says. "Dan is like part of the family. It was very comfortable. Everything worked really well together."
Simple Math also reflects the sound of a band coming together after losing one of its members, drummer Jeremiah Edmond, who left the group last year.
"With the loss of Jeremiah, it made the four of us scoot a little closer to each other," Freeman says. "We had to get together, get closer and be on top of our game. Playing so many shows together, you do get better."
The band began building its bonds in 2004, when Hull brought together four lifelong friends to form Manchester Orchestra. In 2006, the group's I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child album earned a critical enthusiasm that was soon shared by a broadening fan base. Three years later, Manchester Orchestra released its equally lauded Mean Everything to Nothing, which included the modern rock hit "I've Got Friends."
Now it's time for the group to take Simple Math out on the road. Freeman hopes these more personal songs will strike a chord with fans, both old and new.
"When you get to your early 20s, you have to deal with stuff you'd never thought you'd have to deal with," Freeman says. "If you make it through that, something beautiful can come out of it. That's what this record is."