Album number five from Atlanta's Manchester Orchestra finds Andy Hull re-treading familiar territory. But rather than feeling like deja vu, this acoustic track-by-track interpretation of their previous release 'Cope' is, in my mind, a more satisfying venture. That may not be a view shared by established fans. Although 'Cope' was rather more frenetic than previous releases, its companion piece 'Hope' succeeds in pulling more emotion out of the material than the electrified renditions, which for the most part sounded like poking a raw nerve.
There's a moment roughly halfway through 'Hope' where the minimalist approach that's taken reaches a haunting highpoint that forces you to accept this isn't a gimmick, but an inspired creative choice. Hull's repeated refrain of: "Every stone I've thrown has gone away" seems to underline the tactic. But it's the absence of guitars during 'Every Stone' that refocuses your attention on his vocal, which is persuasively backed at varying points with piano, trumpets and strings. It's a world away from the song's spiky and punky interpretation on 'Cope'; here it sounds so fragile that Hull may breakdown at any moment. The earlier version sounded more defiant than deflated. It's the track that makes you appreciate most the restraint that's been taken on 'Hope'.
There are guitars to be found elsewhere, of course, and it's the instrumentation that's used that is the most radical change between 'Cope' and 'Hope'. However, while, for the most part, the lyrics haven't altered bar a few welcome revisions, there's a definite feeling that Hull's wordplay comes to the forefront here. Lines such as: "It's ok to lose a limb when they get too heavy" during the microscopically detailed disintegration of a relationship throughout 'Trees' are emotional gut-punches that just didn't have the same effect during 'Cope'.
With the amps turned down from 11 during 'Hope' there's also room for the subtlety that Manchester Orchestra were previously known for too. One such example is the guitar effect and synth that's used during 'Indentations'. There are echoes of the likes of Death Cab For Cutie, and an anthemic chorus, but it doesn't feel overcooked like its 'Cope' counterpart. Perhaps the key is that, although this is an acoustic reworking of their previous record, the five-piece haven't taken the lazy approach. It's not just a matter of unplugging their guitars and using muted strumming, there's real innovation and problem solving with the instrumentation here to breathe new life into these songs.
For my money then, 'Hope' is not an afterthought, nor the poor cousin to 'Cope'. Neither is it an apologetic retreat from the rather harsh sound of its predecessor. 'Hope' is an alternative, pure and simple. It's the more emotionally harrowing and ultimately satisfying flipside of the coin. There's a distinct feeling that it shares more musical cohesiveness with the band's back catalogue, and that can only be a good thing. While both 'Cope' and 'Hope' have different merits, the latter seems to succeed where the former faltered, mainly because the songs feel more complete and reflective. There's an irony to the title as there's a lack of 'Hope' to be found amongst these downbeat compositions, but there's a real beauty underpinning the way they're presented.
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