Hidden Gem: The Right Away, Great Captain! Series

by Jack Reid

Andy Hull is most commonly known as the bearded, angel-voiced vocalist of Manchester Orchestra, an indie rock band with emo sensibilities, from Atlanta, Georgia. In this format, Hull has long been showing off his incredible skill for lyrical craftsmanship and storytelling. However, within the rock song, and the four piece format, Hull was unable to fully flex his narrative muscles.

Introduction Andy’s solo side project, that has run alongside Manchester Orchestra since 2004 sought to solve this. It would be incorrect to say that Andy Hull adopted the moniker Right Away, Great Captain!. It is more accurate to say that he embarked upon a project with this name. From its conception, Right Away, Great Captain! was always going to be a self-contained set of three LPs. The format was perfect for Hull, who seemed ready to drop the pretence of being a rock musician for a while in favour of becoming a genuine troubadour of the epic tradition. The three albums he produced between 2004 and 2012 chronicle the story of a 17th century sailor who, upon returning from three years at sea, finds that his new bride has betrayed his bed with his brother.

Vol. 1: The Bitter End Hull opens up in the listener a textured oceanic landscape layered with dense symbolism and character. We are introduced throughout the course of the story at first to the hero, then his wife, his traitorous brother, his great captain, and his son and daughter. Each of these characters plays an immensely specific role in the transformation of the hero’s psychic landscape, which is painted across the 17th century ocean beautifully by Hull.

The captain appears as the subject of desperate appeals for help from the hero, who abandons his family and heads straight back out to sea upon realising his cuckoldry. The supplication begins:

Right away, great captain, I’ll go where you want me to, Don’t make it much harder, Than what I have gone through.

The captain appears such an authoritative figure that many have argued that he represents God. I can see how this viewpoint emerges as the sailor seems to regard ‘captain’ as a word encompassing all the paternal, and greater. In Oh, Deceiver he asks his captain who he cries to, and whether it’s okay to cry at all; in Like Lions Do he appeals to the:

Captains of my captains, how can I become a captain? To get the strength I need to pull this one around?

I prefer to imagine him simply the young sailor’s mentor who in Right Ahead, Young Sailor! offers words of stern encouragement to the now nihilistic young sailor:

My young sailor what a point that you just can’t see, Don’t you think that they need a father? So pull yourself together man, smaller man, And do it for a bigger man, bigger man.

In that first album, Hull builds up his first themes and symbols. The sailor becomes obsessed with the idea of his spectre haunting the family “that’s been replacing [him]” in the same nightmares that haunt him. His relationship with his wife wavers back and forth between bubbling hatred and betrayal and opening the possibility of “trying again”, such as in Love, Come Save Me. Throughout the album, the hero seems to feel an incredible torsion that tears him toward his love, and yet out to sea.

Vol. 2: The Eventually Home The second volume, The Eventually Home, opens with the sailor conversing with a ghostly hallucination of his wife. He makes a promise that in some future, he will return home to her, ominously finding his way with “the map carved in the back of [his] arm”. The damage on the hero’s mind really begins to show through the multiple spectres that the listener sees flickering in claustrophobic cabins at night and dank storm clouds lit by lightening. In the first half of volume two, the psychosis takes hold in Cutting Off The Blood To Ten. The sailor dangles from the ship from a rope that cuts the blood from his fingers, tied to a weight to perish him in the sea. In this tableau, a flashback takes us back before the first album’s narrative, to the flashpoint:

“Well I never thought that you would slip inside Your brother’s unfaithful wife, While the children were down the stairs. I saw what you were you doing And I wish that I’d have burned that goddamn door.

The burning door links back to the fantasy from Gasoline Family of standing outside his old family home “with a matchstick and gasoline”. The song later reaches an incredibly raw and passionate climax, an appeal to God that he could have died on the spot at that moment. This simple wish is one of the most moving and one of my favourite moments on the album. From this moment on, the insidious effect of the sailor’s pain begins to emerge. Morbid ideas such as the intentional wrecking of the ship, and the haunting of his “children till they believe there’s no God”. It becomes clear, with Hull’s incredible weaving of vocal delivery and wordsmanship, that the intends to kill his brother as his first impulses begged him to in Right Ahead, Young Sailor!. The captain that tried to keep the sailor’s descent in check is now desolately absent.

The incredibly haunting song I Am A Vampire seems to stab the listener with terror pangs with the aggressively simple lyrics: “I will sneak up and get you”, “I’m bad… I’m bad…” that seem to evoke the boogeyman. The strings are so tense that at one point, one can hear the plink of a catgut snapping. As the murderous climax fades, we are left with:

Want you to feed, Want you to feed, Want you to feed, Want you to feed, Want you to feed on me, Want you to feed on me, Want you to feed on me, Won’t you feed on me.

At this point Andy Hull’s simple musical project seems to have taken on the scale and pathos of an operatic musical. The first time I heard this haunting fade, I could see the unravelled sailor panting in a blood rage, standing over his dead brother. I was thankful that Hull had allowed himself to create such an expansive world, and such a focused narrative to convey with incredible rawness and vital human energy. This moment in the narrative specifically conjures in me the same internal screams of emotion as Romeo’s tragic realisation in the Capulet crypt.

In the final song of the second volume (I Was A Cage), the sailor’s wife looks on, as do his children - all regarding him as a monster. The central conceit of the song explodes the cliché of a man caging his wife and conjures the image of jealousy rattling around inside a cage built of resentment, insomnia and salty alcohol. He admits that he’d sworn to harm his wife, but “now [he’s] way too tired to give a shit”. Hull has executed a perfect tragic climax.

Vol. 3: The Church of the Good Thief In the final volume, The Church Of The Good Thief, we are given the lusis and the tragic fall of our hero. Blame tells us the blurry moments during and after the killing. The key witness, the farmer’s wife is introduced, who later testifies at he sailor’s trial. In a moment that became more moving after a few listens and a full decoding, the sailor regards his children who look on at the body:

I felt the fear in their skin as they plead: Father, did you kill our leader? Our rock and great teacher? What did he deserve?

We cut forward to the trial, and the hero admits to killing his brother to “settle [his] nerves” that we saw so frayed in the second volume. He is resigned to his punishment. From here on, all that is left is the setting straight of the hero’s head whilst he waits for his ultimate punishment, the death penalty. I haven’t spoken much about musicianship within Right Away, Great Captain!. This isn’t because Hull is a poor musician by any means, but because I am often so distracted by his incredible storytelling talent. However, the perfect albums must be made so exactly half by the music. When I Met Death is an example of the way that Hull writes simplistic melodies and variations, with emotionally complex deliveries, to great effect. The account of flirting with death reaches an ecstatic chorus simply with the the piano, guitar, and multi tracked vocals that carry us through most of our journey.

The quasi-holy captain returns here, marking the redemptive stages of the sailor’s story, as he considers what he could do to attain absolution in his captain’s absence. For the first time, the hero seems to express remorseful closeness to his murdered brother. In a line with one of my favourite deliveries in the series, the sailor remarks:

Stupid is as stupid does and stupidly I pulled the plug on you, Finally stopped beating, Stupid is as stupid does and somehow you’ll forgive The both of us.

In one final display of fear, rage and panic before his death, the distorted sounds of Barely Bit Me are uttered from the sailor’s lips. There are painful-sounding denials of fear, at the same time as the tone of the lone guitar seems to take the sonic form of teeth. The denial builds in the song until it falls away:

Okay, it’s hit me… Mother I noticed, One of the men on the cross was allowed to come down, Allowed to come down. Mother I noticed, One of the men on the cross was allowed to come down, Allowed to come down.

In the final parts of the story: ‘Memories From The End’, parts one and two, the troubled sailor finally submits and welcomes his redemption and freedom from the pains he has suffered for so long:

And this the day, I die for it, And I will rejoice, And be glad in it.

Conclusion In the final angelic choirs of the album, the hero seems to ascend into the clouds and our tale is done. What Andy Hull achieved with Right Away, Great Captain! seems so incredible to me because it transcends its medium and seems to occupy the space of the epic, as it was once sung from one Greek to another, to the tragedy, with its heart-ripping pathos, to the operatic musical with those tragic tableaus and dying choirs. The hero seems to ascend into the clouds and our tale is done… To me, the trilogy of Right Away, Great Captain! is, all together, a perfect album, and in its perfection, more than an album. So in conclusion, get all three albums and approach them as you would a trilogy of books. Shut off all distractions; do not do anything as you listen to the albums. You are being told a told a story by one of the best storytellers of our generation. Listen.