Nine Songs: Manchester Orchestra
The formative songs in Andy Hull’s life are eclectic and far reaching, acting as a source of both escape and influence. But put simply, these are the tracks that to him, mean everything.
There are not many people who can recite, word for word, entire verses from deep cuts of Ghostface Killah's discography. Even fewer can accurately decipher the themes and stories held within John K. Samsons Provincial, a record so densely intertwined in its narratives that even the composer himself likely refers to the CliffsNotes. And yet when I sit down to chat to Hull about his favourite songs, I find a man who can do both, with ease.
The emotional candour held within many of his choices will come as little surprise to long-time fans of Hull. Either through his work with Manchester Orchestra or as his side project Right Away, Great Captain! his own songs have always held emotions like water; obliquely relatable, optimistic, crushing, and at all times honest. And it is evident from his Nine Songs choices that in his formative years as a songwriter, and to this day, he is a sponge soaking up the lessons of those that he holds in the highest regard. Whether that be the freedom afforded him by Bob Dylan and Ghostface Killah to worry less and try new things, or the meticulous craftsmanship of Kanye West that has formed his approach on how to piece together records, it has all led him to where he is now, releasing arguably his most fully realised set of songs to date.
On Manchester Orchestra’s latest album, The Million Masks of God, Hull and his songwriting partner Robert McDowell look even further past the boundaries of the territories they began to explore on previous record A Black Mile to the Surface. Displaying not so much a restlessness, as a desire not to repeat themselves and create an album that speaks to who they are as people and where they find themselves now. It is an immersive, lustrous listen that grapples with faith and existential wonder. It may be slicker and more nuanced, but the band has lost none of the naked angst and tumult of their earlier releases, their boots filled with the grit and gravel of the roads that led them here.
Hull talks like a lifelong student of the art of songwriting, and as a deep listener and even deeper thinker, he has established himself as one of its finest painters. “This was an impossible thing to ask any artist to do. It's awful!” he laughs before delving into his choices. It may have been hard to whittle them down but finding the reason why each of these songs eventually made the cut flows out of Hull. “I think they are just in me forever,” he says.
“This was tough, because the first song I picked was actually “Boots of Spanish Leather.” But when I was honest with myself about the one that really hooked me, it was this song. As I was starting to get more into songwriting “Don't Think Twice, It's All Right” was the first Bob Dylan song where I started picking up on things I hadn't heard before, just because I was listening to more music and writing more. It was one of those songs that you put on a mixtape and listen to over and over and over again. And it led me through to “Boots of Spanish Leather”, which means a tonne to me.
“When we were making our first record, I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child, I was starting to worry about repetitiveness, which has always haunted me and which is why I think our records are so different. The idea of “I’ve already done this” and “That chord progression and that melody sounds a little similar…” I was scared of that and I didn't want to fall into it. But I was also only able to come up with so much new sounding material with an acoustic guitar.
“Boots of Spanish Leather” is a gorgeous song going back and forth between a man and a woman about him going off to sea. Anyway, fast forward to when I hear “Girl from the North Country” and it's the exact same song and the exact same melody. And they're both incredible songs. Two completely different stories, one’s conversational, one’s observational, and it opened up my whole idea of Bob Dylan. It gave me this idea of freedom. Both those songs are great, so who says you can't use a melody twice? If potentially the greatest songwriter of all time is doing it, then it's fine.”
“This is the most powerful song I've heard in a really long time and it's probably the song I heard latest out of this whole list. Robert’s Dad - who is a big inspiration for this newest record of ours - would just find incredible songs and he knew what kind of songs I really loved. He loved the art of songwriting and would go to songwriter retreats and encourage me by sending me cool songs that he thought I might never have heard of.
“We were at a wedding shower or something at my parents’ house and we were just sitting there and he had his phone out - he was also totally a dude who would do that. So, we're sitting around talking and he's like “Come here into this room” and pulls out his phone and says, “You gotta hear this song.” And of course, I'm hesitant at first. We were at a party, it was sorta insane, then I'm like “OK, let me listen to it,” and the opening line totally gets me.
“I was about to have my first child and the song is basically about a father admitting that he spanked his daughter too hard when she was a child. The moment where he realises and he says, “I knew right away it was too hard and I'd never make it right,” it was like he'd completely destroyed the potential future of their relationship. And there is this heart-breaking line at the end where he goes “These days things are awful between me and you / All we do is argue like two people who are through / I blame you, your friends, your school, your mother and MTV / Last night I almost hit you, that blame belongs to me.” What a crushing leveller.
“I started crying at this party. This guy is still admitting that even with his grown child he can't control his anger and his temperament with his kids, and it was a terrifying song to hear, almost like ‘I never want to write that song.’ It's insane to admit something like that and the music of the song is pretty cheery. It's a very dark layered song that also really, really affects me in an interesting way.
“There is such a tragic, but very interesting, through line with that family and how they write songs about each other. If you and I were sitting out on my back deck with a portable speaker and a couple of beers I'd take you down the eight to nine song voyage of how they respond to each other. But she (Martha Wainwright) ends up writing that song “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” about him and there are some songs that their mother wrote about Loudon’s infidelities. It's really this unbelievable example of a family who still see each other as far as everyone knows but they write these vicious and honest open letters to each other in music. What a fascinating way to communicate, it's bizarre.”
“I picked this song because it's a culmination of why I love Paul Simon so much. It’s incredibly easy to listen to, it's muted in all the right ways. It starts off as a lovely song... you're kind, you treat me better than everybody else does, you're with me when I'm down and I love you. And without any explanation whatsoever he says, “So goodbye, goodbye / I'm gonna leave you now / And here's the reason why / I like to sleep with the window open / And you keep the window closed / So goodbye.” That's so funny, sad, and perfectly put about a relationship you are committed to, it's brilliant.
“I remember reading a book on songwriting early on in my life about how you want to be cruising down the road at eighty miles an hour and then you want to yank that steering wheel in a direction that no one saw you going. And this song is the gentlest explanation of that. This woman has clearly given him everything she's got and has stuck with him through all of his shit, but there's one small inconvenience for him, so he's leaving, it's insane.
“It means so much but saying so little, and I'm drawn to stuff like that. The Loudon Wainwright III song is so specific about everything that's happening, well, this is kinda the opposite.”
“This was a tough one for me to try and pick which song of his is my favourite, because it would have been wrong not to include a song from him. He’s obviously a very polarising dude, there's a lot of people who think a lot of different things about him. He certainly heavily influenced me in the art of how you create albums. Reading and seeing how he's made things and put things together has been a big influence on me since I heard his first record in 2004.
“This song in particular I love. The music of it is pretty unbelievable, and it sort of sums up what I love about his music too. It takes ideas, repurposes them and turns them into completely new and radical ideas. When I was trying to pick one of his songs it was between this and the song “Gorgeous” on the same record, that’s probably the best lyrical song that he has ever written. It's just really truly unbelievable poetry.
“Every time I’ve seen that guy interviewed or talked about it's always very awkward. It feels like a boiling point, like something is just about to go incredibly wrong. And I love this song because it actually boils down to one particular line, where he goes "I ordered the jerk, she said ‘You are what you eat’ / You see, I always loved that sense of humour / But tonight, you should have seen how quiet the room was" and I love that lyric.
"He takes you into a room of what it probably feels like for him when it's awkward in a place, and he makes a joke, and no one laughs. And any time you can crack into that area where he talks about stuff honestly instead of using bravado and intentionally shocking lyrics, I think that's one of the more special places in writing when he goes there.
“I think that he was way more open in the beginning, and then he sort of developed into this other person. So when those little lines come out it always feels like "Oh man, he's hurting in there.” He's not gonna really admit it, but there's some stuff going on.”
“This is a perfect song, that's what this is. It was probably one of the first songs I ever heard from him. It's so cool that he has made so many albums and has continued to make them, he's a real gift to music I believe.
“This song is about a guy who is in love with a woman who was kidnapped as a child - I think I’m getting that right - and he's fallen in love with her, and she wants to try and go back home. It's two stories intertwining in one, if you can pull that off. It's his journey of loving this person who has to go off and figure out who they are and go find her Mother, because her Dad stole her when she was a little girl, and her Mother lives in Ohio.
“I was trying to think what really stuck with me for songwriting and Damien Jurado and this song in particular has always been a no brainer. He was a really big writer for me when I was writing songs, because I would just sort of hang around the Am, C, F, G, Em chords that I knew and put together some crude fingerpicking and figure his songs out. He's always had such an interesting melodic relationship with his guitar playing.
“The grand sentence at the end still gives me goosebumps, “She belongs to her Mother and the state of Ohio / I wish she belonged to me.” Moments like that, they crush me and really inspire me. It was a pivotal moment.”
“This song is unbelievable. If you go and read the lyrics, he has done more short stories in this song than all of the other songs I'll talk about today combined. Truly a guy at his peak of storytelling and songwriting.
“This song is essentially about two guys sticking up a drug dealer, and it starts with him in a cab eating food in "the back seat with my leg all stiff, smokin baseball spliffs.” And then they create this plan that he's basically gonna go up to the door and one of them is gonna act like they're mugging the other one.
“Sorry, I’m totally nerding out on this right now. He goes "Yo who goes there? Tony, Tony one second homie / No matter rain, sleet or snow you know you supposed to phone me / Off came the latch, Frank pushed me into the door / The door flew open, dude had his mouth open / Frozen, stood still with his heat bulgin' / Told him, "Freeze!" lay the fuck down and enjoy the moment." And he's rapping this stuff so fast and so perfectly that you're in a twenty-five-minute-long movie scene and this song is like three minutes and forty seconds. It just blows my mind.
“He's been a big writer for me and he influences me a tonne, that record in particular. If you can be wordy and get away with it then try it. So with a song like “The Wolf” on our last album I was like ‘I don't think I’ve ever used this many words before, but if Ghostface can do it, I can at least give it a shot.’”
“This record definitely changed my life, maybe even a little even before I discovered Bob Dylan. Pink Moon is definitely one of those records where an older friend said, ‘Check this out you might like it.’ I love this song and the different reason I like this song from the others is that I don't know what he's talking about at all.
“I’ve read a bunch of Nick Drake books, and I still don't really have any idea what he was talking about. There's this ambivalence in the way he puts words together that truly connects to my songwriting brain. I can just make up my own story, I don't have to know what it is.
“I look at that song like a great question in my life, deciding if I was gonna pursue this “maybe it happens if you are really lucky” career in music or which way are you gonna go? And similarly, it played that way with my wife and deciding if I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this person.
“I love the line "Which will you choose now / If you won't choose mine?" For me, I can apply these lyrics to a tonne of different moments in my life where I was able to use it - maybe not for its intended purpose - but it helped me. The highest compliment songs can have is if you don't just remember them for being 16 years old, but you remember them at 16, 26, 36 and they stay with you in your life and they attach multiple memories.”
“This was the first Wilco song that I connected to, I was a junior in high school, so I was probably sixteen. It’s just two chords and it’s another song where I don't know at all what he's talking about. I love speculating, but it's essentially the idea of coming back to your hometown and the tongue in cheek ‘you're so misunderstood’ feeling that I could relate to at that early age of angst. I probably felt like I was really misunderstood at sixteen and then as I've gotten older, I realise that there's total tongue in cheek in the phrasing.
“It's got a Midwest of America kind of feel to it, which is an interesting part of the country. My friends in the band Foxing always talk about this Midwest characteristic, and it's not hopeless at all, it's just a little bit more realist. It's like this working-class kind of tune. And at the end him screaming “I'd like to thank you all for nothin' at all” is classic Jeff Tweedy.
“They're probably one of my favourite bands of all time and have definitely released some of my favourite albums. Being There one and two were stuck in my CD player for a long time. It’s maybe the last double album I can think of from a rock band, other than Biffy Clyro, where I genuinely loved both records.”
“This is great example of a song that you can create meaning to, all of his stuff is. I’ve been obsessed with him since I first heard The Weakerthans, and around that same time I’m hearing Nick Drake and Wilco. Left and Leaving and Reconstruction Site were mainstays for me. He has a way of writing so specifically that it feels universal in the strangest way.
“This song is heart-breaking, truly one of the sadder songs. The way he writes pragmatic loneliness is really interesting. I'll probably mess up the details, but I think this song is written as a note from one brother - who's in a tuberculosis ward - to another in Canada in the late 1800s, early 1900s and he’s documenting his time there.
“It’s an incredible opening line, really unbelievable. He describes how you'll remember this story where this guy wouldn't surrender, so they had to cut off his hands. Well, if he tasted this shitty coffee here, he would have given up the entire war. That's how dire and bad this place is. His imagery of skinny ghosts, talking about the children at the Halloween party, his cross references to tracks he's written before on that same record. He has a song called "When I Write My Master’s Thesis" and the thesis is about the Ninette San which this song is about. It’s an entire universe he's created.
“He's probably my favourite songwriter of all time, he's certainly up there. I listen really intently when he does anything. And this song is what he does best really. It's heart-breaking, it's kinda funny, it's tragic, it maybe sounds hopeful, but I’m not sure if it really is. He's one of the best at it.”