Manchester Orchestra’s ‘I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child’ is a misunderstood classic
This isn't true for a lot of albums, but I vividly remember the first time I heard Manchester Orchestra's proper debut album, I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child. I was in a parking lot with friends, and two of them said I gotta get in their car and hear this new record that just came out by this band called Manchester Orchestra. Before opener "Wolves At Night" was even done, I was hooked. It's a hell of a way to open a record. After the drummer's four-count, a little guitar feedback, and a one-chord warm-up, the massive intro comes in. The guitars have such warm distortion, the drums act like a melodic instrument, and the synth plays this simple little melody that stays stuck in your head for days. Then things simmer down and you're introduced to Andy Hull's now-unmistakable voice. He takes you through various dynamic shifts, through angst and vulnerability, all while proving he has a knack for crafting pop songs. "Wolves At Night" transitions right into "Now That You're Home," the hardest rock song on the album (but not that hard, compared to Virgin's grungy 2009 followup Mean Everything to Nothing). "Now That You're Home" spends the first half of the song bouncing back and forth between a dizzying, borderline math rock riff and somber, Bright Eyes-y verses. Then there's the "we're gonna see if this bad boy can fly" section where Hull really shows off how far he can strain that voice of his, and then the third "now that you're home won't you rescue me" section, where Manchester Orchestra prove they can squeeze a soaring hook into a song that doesn't even have a chorus. And those are just the first two songs on the album.
It's a good time to look back on I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child, as 2017 is looking like a pretty great year for Manchester Orchestra. It’s been 13 years since Andy Hull started the band as a solo project, and they're about to release A Black Mile to the Surface, which is shaping up to be their best album in years. They're also embarking on a tour with Tigers Jaw and Foxing, two of the finest bands in modern-day rock. Virgin also sort of turns ten this month. It was initially released on the band's own Favorite Gentleman label in 2006 but got a more widespread release via Canvasback on July 27, 2007. It feels safe to assume that Manchester Orchestra wouldn't be where they are today if not for the word-of-mouth buzz and fervent fan reactions that I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child caused a decade ago. It's an album that's a certifiable indie rock classic, if not a misunderstood one.
For one, they aren’t an emo band, but "emo" seems to be a term that gets thrown at them, a term that sometimes just means "indie rock bands that indie rock critics don’t know what to do with." And indie rock critics certainly didn’t know what to do with I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child. For example, Pitchfork, which could still elevate an indie rock band from nothing to something in 2006, slapped a 5.1 on the album (and didn’t actually publish the review until January, 2008). The real kicker, though, came in the review for that album’s 2009 followup. In a year where Pitchfork was arguably leaning too heavily into chillwave and slacker indie pop, it’s almost comical that they wrote Manchester Orchestra would "do well to chill out and enjoy being young." Apparently people still bring that review up to the author. (We at BrooklynVegan are guilty of mostly ignoring them at the time too.)
Or maybe the emo tag got thrown at them because they toured with Brand New in 2007, the year after BN released The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, another now-classic album that seemed to pass critics by at the time. A lot of people who did like Manchester Orchestra in the early days were too young to be critics. They were people like Julien Baker, who likes emo but probably won't get called it now that she signed to Matador, tours with The Decemberists, and plays Newport Folk Fest. "I listened to Manchester incessantly growing up," Julien told UPROXX's Steven Hyden. "I had just never heard a band that sounded like that, that was musically so anthemic and powerful but could also be so delicate. Those songs resonated with me emotionally in a way few things had before."
It's strange, really, that I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child had trouble fitting in with the indie rock of its time, since it actually sounded like a lot of the indie rock of its time. It came out the same year as Band of Horses' Everything All the Time and The Decemberists' The Crane Wife (which, if you're wondering, both made Pitchfork's year-end list that year), and it fit in with those albums even better than it fit in with Brand New. Like both of those albums, I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child was rooted in folk music and traditional indie rock, and it had a charismatic singer who could soar in the upper register. Play the climactic build of Virgin centerpiece "Where Have You Been?" back to back with "The Funeral" and see if it feels like they're coming from similar places. (If you can handle that much anthemic-ness at once, that is).
Virgin is undoubtedly emotional, and that's why it connected with so many people. "Sleeper 1972," a minimal, organ-backed dirge, begins with "When my dad died..." and ends with "You told me this has always been worth living, but what's really worth living anymore?" All these years later, I still get at least a little choked up when I hear Andy Hull sing it. On certain live versions of the song (like the one on the Let My Pride Be What's Left Behind EP), Andy would extend the "And I still feel you everywhere" line and do the "everywheeeeeee-AAAAAAA-EEEEEEEEEEEERE" part three times in a row until his voice cracked. On the acoustic "I Can Feel Your Pain" when Hull sings "I can feel your pain deep in my bones," you hear it like he's singing to you, and like you can feel his pain too. It's moments like those that caused fans to latch onto Manchester Orchestra as crazily as they did.
Death is all over the album, as is a problematic relationship with alcohol and a complicated relationship with religion (the latter being something they have in common with Brand New). Emotions run high on nearly every song, even the ones that sound like happy songs, and the emotions are matched by the musical ambition. There are slow songs, fast songs, loud songs, quiet songs, and a handful of songs that fit a few of those descriptors at different times -- like the complex "Now That You're Home," the grand "Where Have You Been?," or "I Can Barely Breathe," which is bedroom-folk one minute and a towering half-time rock song the next. The ambition was startlingly impressive for a debut album, though Manchester Orchestra were truly one of those "you have your whole life to write your debut album" bands. There's a rich vault of semi-official and scrapped material from the pre-Virgin days that allows for a look into a time when the clearly-talented Andy Hull was still figuring out his sound. Virgin songs "Alice and Interiors" and "Golden Ticket" were actually re-recordings of songs from those semi-official releases. For an early taste of the band's musical prowess, "The Procession" is a gem (I always wished that one made it onto Virgin). To hear Andy honing his heartbreaking storytelling while still in high school, look no further than the 2004 version of (the very Conor Oberst-esque) "Girl With Broken Wings."