Manchester Orchestra’s ‘Mean Everything to Nothing’ is still an underrated opus
Manchester Orchestra have an anticipated new album, 'The Million Masks of God', on the way (which you can pre-order it on transparent light blue vinyl in the BV store), but meanwhile, Nina Corcoran takes a look back on their 2009 album 'Mean Everything to Nothing,' an underrated classic that still hasn't gotten its proper due.
When Andy Hull brandished an acoustic guitar to play “Jimmy, He Whispers” at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago, the room was so quiet that you could hear the hushed conversations between people in the balcony. Manchester Orchestra were nearing the end of their 10th anniversary tour for Mean Everything to Nothing, their 2009 sophomore album, and it felt like everyone in the venue was coming down from a collective emotional high. As the album closer, and the only song from the record to have never been performed live prior to this tour, “Jimmy, He Whispers” was a deceptively calm conclusion to a full-album performance that felt like a fever dream. It’s atmospheric and confessional, the type of song where each faint strum of the guitar sounds like it could possibly be the last. As soon as it ended, I immediately found myself wishing the whole night would start over again, as if to help commit the experience to memory all the better.
That cold December night was a nonstop celebration for both longtime fans and newcomers to Manchester Orchestra’s catalog. Within minutes of the doors opening, their tour-only reissue of Mean Everything to Nothing sold out. T-shirts, posters, and other merch followed suit. The crowd that flooded the standing room area was equally as giddy as onlookers in the venue’s upper tiers, as made clear by their dueling woops after every song in the setlist. I’ve been lucky enough to see Manchester Orchestra nearly a dozen times over the years, but I will never forget the sheer thrill of hearing “Tony the Tiger” live for the first time, of feeling the fuzz-filled outro to “In My Teeth” shake my ribcage, of finally getting the opportunity to scream-sing the lyrics to “My Friend Marcus” only to notice my voice had melded with those of dozens of people doing the same that night.
As that anniversary tour made clear, Mean Everything to Nothing is Manchester Orchestra’s most enduring opus. Nearly a dozen years after its release, it has solidified its status as an unflinching rock album full of audible passion. From the sugar rush of propulsive power-pop (“The Only One”) to the throat-shredding bursts of grunge revival (“Shake It Out”) and ominous drones akin to sludge metal (“Pride”), the album offers a huge range of sounds, each one more succinct and fleshed out than the last. Manchester Orchestra’s biggest trick in this regard is that Mean Everything to Nothing never sounds like a musical juggling act. These songs segue into one another with ease and confidence, which allows a heart-tugging violin ballad like “I Can Feel a Hot One” to sit beside “My Friend Marcus,” an unpredictable alt-rock track that waltzes like a drunken carousel tune, rather comfortably. The album is full of big risks that actually pay off without the ego that traditionally accompanies such.
With Mean Everything to Nothing, Manchester Orchestra established themselves as an exceedingly ambitious band with no creative limit in sight. The group—a lineup that consisted of singer-guitarist Andy Hull, guitarist Robert McDowell, keyboardist-percussionist Chris Freeman, bassist Jonathan Corley, and drummer Jeremiah Edmond at the time—brainstormed ideas and tested them out with the type of reckless abandon that bears ample fruit. They filmed music videos for every single song on the album, adorned it in saturated Lomography visuals thanks to Edmond’s newfound love of the genre—a far cry from alt-rock’s all-black pseudo toughness or the collegiate cardigans of indie rock photoshoots—and recorded tour diaries for a behind-the-scenes look at how everything came together live. Manchester Orchestra always ingrained genuine enthusiasm into their work. Looking back, it’s the type of all-or-nothing approach that feels conspicuously absent now outside of major label puppets and indie critic darlings, neither of which umbrellas Manchester Orchestra fell under.
Despite all of that, Mean Everything to Nothing never got the critical acclaim it deserved upon release. Barely two years after dropping their debut album, I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, when Hull was just 19 years old, Manchester Orchestra were still being pinned down by a fixation on their lead singer’s age. “For a kid barely able to legally drink, Hull’s got the exhaustion of middle age,” claimed Pitchfork, “[and that’s] what stops them from being great.” Pop Matters decided that Hull “probably has a ways to go artistically” because he’s “still fairly young.” Rolling Stone cut right to the chase and likened him to “that kid from There Will Be Blood” yelling Southern sermons. Basically the only review that didn’t mention Hull’s age came courtesy of Alternative Press, who dubbed the album “one of the landmark releases of 2009,” compared it to Pinkerton and The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, and awarded it a perfect score.
Of course, songwriters are given free range to write about experiences, regardless of whether or not it’s one they’ve encountered firsthand. While there are numerous subjects on Mean Everything to Nothing that relate to Hull’s life—growing up as a pastor’s son, questioning the purpose of specific friendships, falling deeper in love with a partner—there’s a handful that are clearly fictional ruminations for imagination’s sake. To herald Manchester Orchestra’s sound while simultaneously chastising Hull for his youthful naivety is an odd choice, especially considering his lyrics avoid the cliched territory of undergrad portfolios and, even now, beloved indie rock bands whose rote platitudes are propped up as poetry.
It’s tempting to wonder how positive press could have altered the trajectory of Manchester Orchestra behind an album as immediate and intense as Mean Everything to Nothing. To their credit, the band never paid much attention to music criticism, positive or negative. By the sound of it, Hull tried to write lyrics to the best of his ability without overthinking it, aware of the fact that oftentimes the best lines are disjointed or nonsensical. “I write about what I know and don’t know,” he said in an interview later that year. “The story is my enemy, so I battle each song until I have conquered it, until the phrase can’t be better in my opinion and ability.”
Arguably the most poignant song-turned-poem on the album is “I Can Feel a Hot One.” Overwhelmed by a panic attack and the promise of coming home post-tour, the narrator experiences a breakdown on the road and falls asleep crying. He dreams about his wife dying in a car crash and begs God to save her, only to find out that he saved her unborn child’s life instead. Hull delivers each verse with humility in a style reminiscent of confession. “I took it like a grown man, crying on the pavement/ Hoping you would show your face,” he sings earnestly. “I haven’t heard a thing you’ve said/ In at least a couple hundred days/ What’d you say?”
As stirring as Hull’s lyrics can be, what pushes Mean Everything to Nothing from a good album to a great album is the delivery of the music itself. Hull spits out his lines in “100 Dollars” like he’s overcome by shame and desperation. Yawning guitar lines, ringtone-like keyboard notes, layered handclaps, and Beach Boys-style backing harmonies stack atop one another in “The Only One” to build a blissfully overwhelming guitar pop hit; you can practically hear each band member having a blast in the studio. And then there’s “The River,” a cumulative epic that builds from one chorus to the next with the type of anticipatory hooks that make the song’s ultimate payoff—a larger-than-life crescendo dotted with literal “Oh my gods,” complete with vein-popping screams and thundering cymbal crashes—hit like a cathartic emotional breakdown.
Manchester Orchestra sound furiously passionate on Mean Everything to Nothing in a way that mirrors the most iconic emo albums — perhaps an explanation in itself as to why Foxing and Oso Oso opened the album’s anniversary tour. A week after the record’s release, they stopped by Letterman to perform the lead single, “I’ve Got Friends.” Despite looking like they were just dragged out of a freshman dorm room, Manchester Orchestra take complete ownership of the TV stage, using the song’s surprise chorus to flip the switch and transform from a group of meek guys into an absolute powerhouse collective. Freeman’s performance alone warrants a standing ovation as he alternates between keyboards and percussion with an intense ardor, all while shredding his voice for the sake of hollered backing vocals. Come the end, Manchester Orchestra cash their emo card whether they intended to or not, screaming along to the wordless melody off key but with enough emotional strain to pass it off like a punk rage. To this day, it remains one of the best modern TV performances I’ve seen, and each time I revisit it I’m shocked at how well the audio is mixed.
On their most recent records, Manchester Orchestra veered towards softer indie rock and singles like “The Gold” topped the Billboard Triple-A charts. But despite musical growth in new directions, the band’s live shows routinely revisit the sophomore album. Out of Manchester Orchestra’s 17 most frequently played songs, nine of them are from Mean Everything to Nothing. With each year that the band grows, so do these album cuts. Heavy numbers like “Shake It Out” and “Pride” swell into enormous beasts that exaggerate their volume and scope, and Manchester Orchestra wield them onstage like a no-holds-barred anger management session. Instead of becoming an album they’ve outgrown, Mean Everything to Nothing has become a definitive part of Manchester Orchestra’s sound on the road. It’s heartening to see them continually hone in on such a well-written classic, but more than anything else, it’s exciting to know that a new generation may discover it with each passing tour. Based on the speed that each vinyl pressing sells out, it appears Mean Everything to Nothing won’t be left to collect dust anytime soon.