What is it about the sea that inspires such tales of tragedy and betrayal? The various oceans and rivers of the world have served as inspiration for countless songs and seem to be arenas for all different examples of human loathsomeness. Following in this vein, Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra and Bad Books fame has delivered the third album in his epic trilogy, The Church of the Good Thief.
Using Right Away, Great Captain as his moniker, Hull tells the tale of a 17th century sailor who spends his time away from home and on the sea, forever in search of treasure and whatever else might lay beyond the ever-out-of-reach horizon. Upon returning to his dweillings, the mariner discovers his wife has been nothing short of a harlot (to put it eloquently) with his own brother no less.
The first two installments of this yarn were sewn in the form of 2007’s The Bitter End and 2008’s The Eventually Home. At the close of the latter our protagonist has a choice to make: Kill his own flesh and blood, or to snuff out his whore of a spouse. In the end, it’s the sailor’s brother who takes a dirt nap, and Right Away, Great Captain enthusiasts have been waiting four long years to hear what happens next…
The Church of the Good Thief is an interpretation of the protagonist sitting in a jail cell, having been locked up for his dastardly deed. All this man has to express his thoughts while locked behind bars are a guitar, a piano, and his voice…not quite Lil Wayne’s lavish prison-based studio, but none too shabby.
As any fan of Manchester Orchestra can attest, Hull’s voice in and of itself is a prominent instrument. His unique delivery and timbre are a hallmark of the band’s lush and symphonic sound. And once again, Hull’s vocals takes center stage – the aforementioned guitar and piano are sparse and merely serve as a necessary platter on which to present his detailed storytelling.
Given life by Hull’s soaring voice, the sailor’s mental tosses and turns are played out over 11-tracks as he attempts to fully digest the gravity of his actions. Generous echo gives the listener a sense of the four walls of the cell drawing closer by the day, the thoughts in his head a never-ending carousel.
As the record commences, our sailor is merely thirty minutes past committing the murder that would change both his and his wife’s lives. He has stared death in the face and been an accomplice in its dark art. On “When I Met Death,” he converses with the Grim Reaper and leaves with a grand mission to carry out: “And all the seeds that you’ve undone you’ll have to sew. Now go, now go.” As he sets forth, he begins to realize what he has done, and more importantly, what has yet to come on “I am Aware:” “Never quite there, never quite scared as I should be.” Why isn’t he all there? Why is he not afraid of what challenges lay before him? Hull presents the listener in with more questions than answers. He explores the themes of the evil inside him on songs such as “Barely Bit Me” and “Rotten Black Root.” On the latter, dark imagery abounds as Hull cries “Rotten black root, I feed from you. So soothe my wounds and let me move.” Finally, the sailor’s three-album-long story comes to an end in the form of “Memories From The End Pt.1” and “Memories From The End Pt. 2,” passionately repeating “I want it all” the former. Part 2 finds our sailor reflective: “And it was my fault to not know how far down the hole I had fallen. It was alright with me.” He continues: “And now I am shown, the treacherous pains to become something whole. Redemption that’s free, the burden from me. Redemption so free, discovering me.”
There is no denying that Hull is a poet – the guy knows how to unfold a story dramatically. Each song has the feel of a slow mental march of a man who is only beginning to come to grips with his movements. While this is interesting for the first few tracks, over the course of the entire album it starts to become a tad drawn out. The listener may find themselves checking their watch and wondering just how long this man is going to mentally retrace his steps. Each song has the same character with only minor variances – a slow, mournful pace led by a barely-there guitar riff that gets overpowered by Hull’s melancholy voice, eventually twisting into something more triumphant about halfway through the tune. Hull is adept at giving life to the morose mariner, but even for a concept album he goes to the well one too many times. I could not help but find myself hopefully holding out for a Manchester Orchestra-like burst of riff-rocking anger and bombast (I’d have accepted a swirling Bad Books anthem), all the while full well knowing it was not coming. For fans of Andy Hull, The Church of the Good Thief is a stripped-down look into his unique artistry. After three concept albums spanning five years, it will be interesting to see what Hull follows up with on his next solo effort.
MUST HEAR TRACK: “Barely Bit Me” is one of the few tracks on the album to have a hint of rock to it. Hull opines on the power of evil: “Sin has always found a way to make the saints obey.”