Artist: Manchester Orchestra
Album: The Million Masks of God
In Brief: While I’m still unraveling the tale of memory, falsehood, and mental distress that Manchester Orchestra has woven on this album, I can definitely say that I love how it’s being told. This band may not have the flashiest riffs or the most out-there, avant-garde approach to making music, but they’re incredibly efficient when it comes to building up a song from a delicate melodic phrase to a full-blown, climatic release of tension, and their frontman Andy Hull is a uniquely engaging vocalist. The Million Masks of God is a series of dramatic movements that I find myself eager to get lost in over and over again.
If you’re among the people who read my blog regularly (and if so, hello to both of you!), you probably saw the title of this review and thought to yourself: “Didn’t he literally just write about this album?” I did. My usual practice with new albums I’m taking in for the first time is to cover them with a blurb in my “What Am I Listening To?” column that I write at the end of each month, and Manchester Orchestra‘s latest album The Million Masks of God came out on April 30, meaning I wasn’t going to have any idea what to say about it on the very same day, so I punted it to the May column instead. But I’d had an entire month to let this thing sink in, so my opinion of it was more well-formed than most of the stuff I usually offer hot takes in in those brief synopses. I usually like to put a bit more space between that initial reaction and the full-length review, but honestly, out of all the new-ish releases on my pile that are still waiting to get the “deep dive” treatment, this is easily the one I’m most interested in talking about. So forgive me if some of this is a repeat of what you just read mere days ago. You know what, we might as well get the repetitive talking points out of the way so that I can get to the more interesting stuff. Here you go:
- The band’s name is geographically misleading. They’re from Atlanta, Georgia, but they chose the name “Manchester Orchestra” to name-check an English city that they thought had a fantastic music scene.
- Their name is also stylistically misleading. This is an indie rock band that approaches electronic rock on the more aggressive end of things, and indie folk on the mellower side. There is nothing “orchestral” about their sound.
- They’ve been around since the mid-2000s, and this is their sixth album, but they’re completely new to me.
- Their lead singer Andy Hull is an amazing vocalist, despite the fact that he frequently reminds me of two singers I don’t particularly care for: Nate Ruess of fun., and Leighton Antelman of Lydia. That may have more to do with their respective songwriting skills and their bands’ chosen styles than their vocal qualities, though.
- This is my favorite new album of 2021 thus far.
What I didn’t know about The Million Masks of God, or at least didn’t take the time to articulate, is that it might just be the ideal concept album for the “post-album” era. In other words, there’s a connecting storyline and several repeated motifs that serve to bridge these 11 songs, but each one is its own distinct composition with a clear beginning and ending, and you can pull out individual songs that are highly enjoyable outside of the greater context. (Spotify did exactly that, putting the album’s lead single “Bed Head” onto a new release playlist I check out weekly, and clearly the algorithm did me some justice this time around!) That way you’ve got the means to pull in new listeners like me whose attention spans might be stretched thin due to the sheer amount of new music streaming services are shoving in front of us at any given moment, but you’ve also got these little thematic hooks to make them wonder what else you’ve got to offer that could help explain what they’re hearing and enjoying, but not yet understanding. Throughout this album, in addition to a few of the clever musical segues between songs, you can hear the voice of a child recounting bits and pieces of a classic story, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. The fact that they come back around to this on a few occasions, in very different musical contexts as the album unfolds, hints that it might have something to do with the record’s overall theme. And indeed, if you pay closer attention to the lyrics, it sounds an awful lot like there’s a struggle with someone being injured or otherwise impaired, not being able to keep their facts and memories straight, and becoming a real challenge for their caretakers and loved ones to deal with. The question of what might be real vs. all in this person’s mind gives the album a feeling of suspense, which reverberates even through some of the more elegant acoustic numbers, that are sung in a heartfelt but melancholy manner. And your memory is not playing tricks on you if you think you’ve already heard a certain chorus or verse – there are snippets of songs that deliberately foreshadow the lyrics and/or melodies of other songs. A band I should have name-dropped in my comparisons, yet didn’t think to (and it’s likely the members of Manchester Orchestra haven’t heard of ’em anyway), is Falling Up, who were notorious for cross-referencing their songs and even albums with one another, in ways that sometimes took years to notice. This album isn’t quite as complex as that, but it tickles the same “Ooh, I want to unravel this mysterious story!” corner of my brain.
Musically speaking, even if I haven’t singled out any particular member of Manchester Orchestra as a virtuoso at their instrument, they perform rather tightly as a unit, and they know how to take simple riffs and motifs and use them to build toward stunning, cathartic conclusions, without ever feeling like they’re repeating themselves aimlessly or stalling for time. Hull is pretty clearly the band’s MVP, but he seems like the kind of frontman who is happy to collaborate and let his band tinker with interesting sonic ideas, rather than getting fussy and trying to run the entire show himself. He’s cited the bands Clinic and Radiohead as inspirations for this album – I know nothing of the former, but I definitely know that the latter has learned a thing or two over the years about the importance of working as an ensemble and giving all of your band members a chance to shine, rather than letting everything get sidelined by an unchecked control freak. The band pushed themselves to experiment with looped drums and textures here while still maintaining a delicate, human touch throughout most of it – except for when an occasional song is being deliberately aloof and mysterious, I guess. Even then, it all fits together in a way that isn’t jarring, making it clear that they’ve thought through how this album would play end to end by listeners not only trying to piece together the story, but wanting a satisfying enough listening experience that they’d come back and relive it all just for the sheer sound of it. I find myself humming quite a few of these songs in my head when the record is over – and by my yardstick (uh, sorry – meterstick), that’s a success where a lot of other ambitious bands trying to work a conceptual arc into an album and ending up slaving over it for several years have failed. I can think of a lot of “smart” records in the art/experimental/progressive rock arena that I have a ton of respect for, but can’t find a single song to really get attached to that makes me want to keep coming back once I think I’ve got the concept cracked. Sometimes less is more.
I still have quite a bit to make sense of here – I haven’t even begun to suss out what the heck the title could have to do with the lyrical themes I’ve picked up on so far. Let’s see if we can’t work some of that out in the song-by-song, shall we?
The opening seconds of this track actually had me worried that the song might live up to its name, but thankfully the muffled, swirling sounds of the intro don’t go on for very long before the song’s first verse comes in full force, with Andy Hull’s multi-tracked voice ringing out loud and clear, as if he has to sing loud just to be heard by a person who can only be bothered to mumble under their breath in response. The song plays out like a slow, patient dance in which one partner doesn’t want to cooperate and the other gets increasingly more exasperated with them, which leads to threats like “Wheel you down to the old folks home” that deliberately clash with the gentle but climactic melody, while the other person seems to be arguing back that their caretaker really cares more about the time and money that they’re spending than the actual person behind the need. It’s pretty clear that he’s arguing with an elderly person, probably a parent who has been placed in his care and who is being rather cantankerous about it. The music is restrained and many elements of it are digitized, yet it reaches a lovely crescendo that seems like the sort of thing most bands would save for a grand finale, making me wonder if we’ve been dropped into this story at the middle or close to the end. Intriguing way to open a record – it definitely catches me off-guard.
2. Angel of Death
The album’s longest track, which stretches out to nearly six minutes, is an interesting choice to put second in the running order. I guess I’d describe it as sort of a mid-tempo anthem, with its fair share of programming and eerie reverb, but it’s also one of the best performances on the album for drummer Tim Very, who builds up tension with some interesting, aggressive fills and rolls, particularly in the bridge section where the tempo threatens to pick up a bit before settling back into the established groove for the chorus. It’s one of the many moments where the balance between a thick groove and a delicate, melancholy soundscape reminds me of an Elbow track. This has been one of the hardest songs for me to get a handle on in terms of its meaning and its place in the overall story, since Hull is clearly being haunted by some old demons as he retraces the life story of his aging relative, who I’m guessing must be his mother, since at one point he tries to envision how he looks “In the eyes of my grandfather’s daughter.” The first view verses state that he’s both driving and sleeping with “the angel of death” by his side, so I’m imagining a man cohabitating with his mother as her health begins to fail, knowing that the end is coming, but unsure how to balance the menial burden of driving her to and from medical appointments and various errands she can no longer manage for herself, with the emotional burden of knowing these may be the final days he gets to spend with her. It’s heavy stuff. The last couple minutes of the song do seem to drag a bit, but I suppose it makes sense when you think about the inexorable march toward the grave that it’s trying to describe.
3. Keel Timing
The next two tracks are the most conventionally catchy songs on the record, and for someone like me who is easily roped in by the combination of slick programming and keyboard effects with live drums and guitars, they’re definitely the ideal place to start if you’re new to the band like I was. Lead guitarist Robert McDowell is also the one providing a lot of the keyboard wizardry on this album, and I’m guessing that’s his primary role here while Hull holds down the fort in the rhythm guitar department, creating an intoxicatingly kinetic blend of sounds that grinds on throughout the track like an efficient machine (well, aside from a glorious moment of respite when the instrumentation drops out almost completely for a verse, leaving just the lead and backing vocals). He sings in sort of a desperate tone here, comparing himself to a wanted man being chased by the police, or a forest being consumed by fire. The title gives me no clues as to what all of this might mean, as it doesn’t appear anywhere in the song, but I’m guessing there’s been a perspective flip here, and he’s now singing from the perspective of the aging parent, who is trying to hold onto fleeting memories and make some sense of their life story before the ravages of time rob them of the ability to recall it clearly. The bridge section, which repeats a few times, is a bit more calm and melodic – and it’s self-contradictory on multiple levels, because he sings “Hold me now/No, I will not repeat myself/So hold me down/Yeah, all I do is rеpeat myself”, which not only happens more than once in this song, but it also foreshadows the chorus of a completely different song. I love it when albums hint at that sort of interconnectedness between tracks – a feat which this song also pulls off musically by ending on an electronic beat that segues seamlessly into the next track.
4. Bed Head
The band certainly put the album’s most up-tempo and accessible song front and center, choosing to release it as their lead single, which is how I got on board. I was immediately reminded of the work of Paper Route, one of my all-time favorite bands, due to the driving rhythm guitar, the crunchy drum programming, the synthpoppy keyboard hook, and the absolutely superb live drumming that keeps the song danceable right up to the last minute or so, when it shifts gears and goes for more of an aggressive rock rhythm, without actually changing the tempo of the song. Hull’s voice absolutely soars on the refrain here, and the band seems to have taken a page from the Chvrches songwriting playbook, considering how neatly the verse pivots into the chorus with the line “Oh my God!”, and there’s such a strong post-chorus hook that it feels like the song gives us two choruses for the price of one. Verses that build up naturally to the chorus that follows them, rather than feeling like an obligatory big hook is suddenly being dropped on you non-sequitur, are harder to come up with than you might think, and this song is a master class example. Hull has described this song as “two old friends existing in separate realities”, and judging from the lyrics, I’m going to go ahead and guess that one of them is dead and the other is imagining the conversations they might have about the choices the survivor made in the years since their death, and whether they’ve lived their life well and can feel proud of the decisions they’ve made along the way. Manchester Orchestra excels at creating this atmosphere of both dread and grandeur at the same time, and this is one of the album’s best examples of that, giving us a lot more depth than you might normally expect from such a catchy single. Perhaps the most chilling part comes at the end, when a child’s voice can be heard echoing as they tell part of the aforementioned “boy who cried wolf” story, particularly the part where the villagers realize he’s making it all up and there is no wolf. What exactly does the made-up wolf represent in this scenario? That’s the question that keeps me listening intently for further clues.
Another Manchester band that I probably should have credited above as a possible influence is Doves (who I’ve often compared to Elbow, so I’m surprised I forgot to mention them until now). The quick, syncopated rhythm of this song and the winding, minor key melody remind me of something they might do, in the vein of “Sea Song” or “Spellbound”. It’s breathtaking when you listen closely to the interplay between the acoustic and electric guitar and the piano – there’s enough space in this track for it to not feel like an intense, programming-heavy rocker, and thus a bit of a break after the last two tracks, but it’s still got an amazing ambiance to it, one that really pulls me in. It’s here that I notice the first instance of a repeated lyrical snippet from another song, as the first verse opens with “I thought this time I might just walk away from you”, which we heard in the coda from “Angel of Death”. This song seems to explore the falling out from a previous attempt to walk away, and though it’s quite cryptic, I’m still picking up on the mother/son dynamic here, as he appears to be describing headstrong choices made in his younger days, involving both him and his siblings trying to leave the nest before they were really ready, and being sort of amazed at their mother’s understanding and longsuffering with his ensuing failure to launch. I’m guessing he’s going over this in his mind because now the roles are reversed. It’s here where he confesses “I’ve been trying to replicate the mask of God”, which is the only place I can recall where the title of the album sort of gets referred to in the lyrics, and I’m still not even close to understanding what that means. It’s a fittingly complex song that explores a maddeningly complex relationship.
We close out the first half of the album with its shortest song, which is an earnest acoustic ballad about love and commitment. It sounds like it could be a conversation between a husband and wife about how they want to be there for each other when it’s their turn to grow old, so that they don’t get hit as hard by the loneliness and despair they’re currently watching his mother go through. It’s an incredibly tender song, with gorgeous finger-picking from McDowell, backed by Hull’s delicate piano, a cello, and sparse percussion. I wouldn’t have minded this one going on a little longer – it resolves on a deliberately uncertain note about two and a half minutes in.
7. Let It Storm
This track feels like a hybrid of the last two – its first half is more of an elegant acoustic performance, reminding me a little of a song like Elbow’s “Great Expectations” that might show up in the back half of one of their records. But it takes a very sudden turn midway through when the distorted electric guitar comes in, and at that point its like the song becomes a more troubled version of itself, as the louder drums and the keyboards and the eerie background ambiance all creep back in. The song seems to be from the point of view of the person who has wrestled with the topic of faith for most of their life, and maybe even pushed the whole subject out of their mind in order to get some peace, but is now finding that they have to reckon with it because they don’t have much time left. They seem to be assuring another person that they’re at peace with it, even if it means letting some of those old unresolved questions back in that used to haunt them: “I don’t wanna hold back my faith anymore/I don’t wanna fall into that man again/I just wanna keep both my feet on the floor/So let it touch me/And let it storm.” It’s like they know they’ll have to wrestle with the doubt and that’s going to be uncomfortable, but it’s better than ignoring it altogether.
As I listen more carefully to the back half of this album, I’m struck by how the whole “You only get credit for a stream if the listener makes it to at least the thirty second model” would utterly fail for most of these songs. It even challenges my own biases when I’m listening to a record for the first time – my first impressions of most songs will be based on how they start, not so much how they develop, which at first lead me to the assumption that this was an alarmingly sparse record outside of “Keel Timing” and “Bed Head”, because I hadn’t yet stopped to appreciate the way that some of these songs change direction mid-stream. This is the darkest, murkiest song on the album, with the bass and percussion having a damp sort of quality to them, as Hull quietly muses about the way he was raised “by the lion” and how he wants raising his own child to be different – the old dilemma of how to break the generational curse, which is probably at the forefront of his mind now that he’s staring down the possibility of becoming the family patriarch, as the last surviving member of the generation before him is about to pass on. It’s heavy stuff that he approaches with fear and trepidation, and here is where I can see a bit of the Radiohead influence creeping on, as this song does a really good job of using distorted, alienating textures to create an atmosphere of paranoia, before giving way to a huge, electric guitar-driven cry for help right in the middle of the song. The best part is that the slow, smoothly-sung chorus of this song is where that bridge section from “Keel Timing” pops up again. Now the idea that he repeats himself despite swearing up and down that he won’t is expressed in a completely new concept – it’s not just that he’s tired of having to repeat his words to an aging parent who isn’t really listening; now he’s afraid of repeating the same mistakes one or both of his parents did, and passing the same old baggage on to his kid. Ouch, that one hits really close to home.
This song is just… WOW. I haven’t fully worked out everything that’s going on here, but the bits and pieces I’ve taken a stab at interpreting so far have pretty much brought me to tears. Here the band reverts back to delicate, finger-picked acoustic mode – and by this point, based on your experience with “Annie” and “Let It Storm”, you can probably guess that it’s not going to stay that way. It’s different in the sense that when the song gets “big”, it’s more of a cathartic emotional release and not so much an attempt to create an eerie or unsettling soundscape. This one is beautiful in its biggest moments, when Andy is absolutely nailing those emotional high notes, as it is in its most intimate ones. The narrative appears to juxtapose the death of the aging parent he’s been dealing with throughout the record (though it’s unclear from context whether this is still the mother, or he’s flashing back to the earlier death of his father) and the birth of his own child, both life-changing events that seem to have taken place at the same hospital at around the same time. Throughout it all, you can tell he’s trying to keep a stiff upper lip while grappling with what his new normal is going to look like when it’s all done – cradling that newborn in his arms, hoping he can be a better dad than the example he’s been given, while at the same time trying to figure out how to eulogize a parent he had a strange relationship with. MAN, those are some big feelings to grapple with in a just under four-minute song.
10. Way Back
I love it when the gentle acoustic arpeggio picks up at the beginning of this song, with a melody that reminds me a bit of a clock tower announcing that it’s the top of the hour, right as the last bits of ambiance from “Obstacle” are fading out – it very deliberately sets this one up as a sort of coda to that song. This one seems to be a reflection on the days immediately following the death of the mother (or father) that took place in the previous song – now he’s at their house, cleaning out closets and going through their stuff, and trying to handle the flood of memories that comes rushing back from childhood, many of which seem to be unwanted ones. He’s arrived at some sort of peace or at least acceptance, actually feeling like he doesn’t miss them as much as he thought he would, perhaps because their final days together were so strained. But there’s also an aspect of this song that feels like he’s lying to himself, perhaps whispering these words as a mantra because he still needs to convince himself that it’s really over. While this one doesn’t go for the jugular with a big burst of musical energy like the last few tracks did, the vocal melody is incredibly tender, and the wash of harmony vocals when the simple, muted chorus of “Way back” turns to a more cathartic “Wave back, wave back” cried out in a higher register is one of the album’s most gut-wrenching moments. I’m reminded a little bit of Finneas here (the producer, co-writer, and brother of Billie Eilish as well as a solo artist in his own right), and how that young man has a gift for using empty space and intriguing background textures to get the most out of an otherwise sparse, acoustic composition. Seems weird comparing a younger artist to a band that has clearly been around the block a few times, but the point is that both of them can manipulate sound in a way that really intrigues me, especially when I’m paying close attention with headphones on, and it feels like it adds to rather than distracts from a song that is meant to convey emotional turbulence.
11. The Internet
The album closes with another murky song – a rather cryptic one, too, as it seems to use strange metaphors for the contentious parent/child relationship it’s been exploring throughout – “I was an autograph/You were the internet”, “I am your silhouette/You are my alphabet”. I think it’s about realizing the mark this person has left even though they are gone, and how you’ll never completely escape being like them in some ways, even though you hope to God you won’t resemble them at their worst. The instrumentation is slow and spooky at the beginning – distant, thumping percussion and ominous piano chords, reminding me a bit of how Thrice closed out Vheissu with “Red Sky”, but taking it in a very different direction by sustaining the tension longer and then finally breaking it with an angry burst of energy. The sudden crunch of atonal guitar distortion that jolts us out of our stupor as the band brings the house down with their final crescendo reminds me a bit of Johnny Greenwood‘s infamous attempt to revolt against the Radiohead song “Creep”, which only turned out to help it become a huge hit. This is a less catchy (but presumably less antagonistic on the part of Robert McDowell towards his bandmates) version of that, perfectly timed to match Hull’s anguish as he realizes he had been wrong about his mother and/or father all along. After the loud bridge section comes the album’s eeriest moment – a reverb-heavy recording of the child heard back at the end of “Bed Head” explaining the end of the “boy who cried wolf story” to his father: “This time there was really a wolf! And guess what that wolf did? Ate the sheep.” The melancholy tone in the child’s voice absolutely wrecks me, and I have to wonder if this was Andy himself as a child, now looking back at this story and realized he had missed the parallels between it and his own ability to lie to himself about… something to do with that uneasy relationship with the deceased parent. I really wish I could completely work that part out, because the entire crux of the album’s story seems to depend on it, and the unresolved ending seems like it would be even more chilling if I could connect those last dots. In any event, I’m absolutely floored by how strong of a showing the band has made on these last few tracks – they’re all on the slower side and they take a little time to get into, but the payoff is huge, and whenever a band can end an album like this by making me want to go back and dig for more details in the story, rather than feeling like it was long and convoluted and I’m glad it’s over, I figure that’s a huge win given the inherent risk of basing an entire record on a complex theme that each of its individual songs is working toward. They passed a difficult test with flying colors here.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Angel of Death $1
Keel Timing $1.75
Bed Head $2
Let It Storm $1.25
Way Back $1.75
The Internet $1.50
Andy Hull: Lead vocals, rhythm guitar, piano
Robert McDowell: Lead guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Tim Very: Drums, percussion, backing vocals
Andy Prince: Bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: