MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA – ” The Million Masks Of God “

Posted: May 3, 2021 in MUSIC

Andy Hull is describing his process of sequencing Manchester Orchestra’s “The Million Masks Of God” as he casually notes, “We realized we wanted to make the record almost copy our interpretation of the human experience.” Trying to capture the meaning of life in a 45-minute album, nbd. But Hull catches himself in a highly on-brand moment and laughs. He’s kidding, but definitely not joking — Manchester Orchestra make albums about Big Things, maybe even the Only Things.

The Million Masks Of God is no exception. Like 2017’s A Black Mile To The Surface, it’s both a filmic, fictional concept record and a meditation about faith, family, and the afterlife forged under monumentally life-changing circumstances. But whereas “A Black Mile” was sparked by the birth of Hull’s daughter, “The Million Masks” drew inspiration from his bandmate and brother-in-law Robert McDowell watching his father Chuck fight cancer throughout the writing process; the album was recorded during his last few days before passing in 2019.

The conceptual heft that Manchester Orchestra bring to The Million Masks Of God is nothing new for the band; the process of writing and talking through tragedy has unearthed a lightness and serenity that is very much a new thing. The sound of the album is also new: Scaling back the brawn and angst of their earlier work for Quincy Jones funk guitars, stacked-heavenward harmonies, and tender ballads, The Million Masks Of God is Manchester Orchestra’s most plainly beautiful album. I’d also argue it’s their best — though as a relatively new convert, I’m well aware that diehards might see this as hyperbole, if not blasphemy.

In 2019, Manchester Orchestra did a run of shows celebrating the 10th anniversary of Mean Everything To Nothing, widely considered the apex of the band’s first phase — begun in 2004 as a solo project when Hull was still the teenage son of a Baptist pastor in suburban Atlanta and ending with 2014’s Cope and its acoustic redux Hope. During this decade, Manchester Orchestra were consistent, yet hard to pin down. Frequently compared to Neutral Milk Hotel and Bright Eyes, they were more emotionally raw than most bands of their era. They signed to a major label and achieved enviable success, though they never got much attention from radio aside from the Garth Brooks-adjacent “I’ve Got Friends,” which Hull describes as a “mild hit.”

Their albums could legitimately be considered “critically acclaimed,” depending on who you read. Punk-leaning mags and websites like Sputnik, Alternative Press, and Absolute Punk revered Manchester Orchestra, who were either ignored or mocked by writers at more self-consciously hip publications (myself included). This discrepancy became impossible to ignore even as far back as 2007, when his band was opening for the similarly unheralded mewithoutYou and had to clear out a venue before an indie darling played the late show. “There were 40 people at the Fiery Furnaces,”. “We were looking at all these cool websites that were talking about the Fiery Furnaces, nobody’s talking about mewithoutYou, yet there were 500 kids going apeshit for mewithoutYou.”

But when bands like Manchester Orchestra stick around long enough, the narrative arc tends to bend in their favour. Their spiritualized brand of alt-rock made an immediate and indelible impression with teenagers struggling with their own faith, many of whom would grow up to be writers and artists. The conversation around them had changed by 2017 — Manchester Orchestra had emerged as elder statesmen for a new wave of exciting, forward-thinking singer-songwriters, artists ranging from Julien Baker to Foxing to Phoebe Bridgers becoming Hull’s loudest cheerleaders. And while Hull describes their previous albums as attempts to recreate the leave-it-all-on-the-floor, cathartic impact of their live show in the studio, A Black Mile was created with a team of producers and guest contributors that rival, like, the Game’s The Documentary.

Hull identifies as a forever Radiohead and Wilco fan, and A Black Mile To The Surface sounded like the kind of album meant for people who listen to OK Computer or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and think, “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore” — conceptually and sonically ambitious electronic-rock hybrids that still appeal to one’s inner teenager hitting up Sam Goody with $16 they scrounged together between lawnmowing gigs. “Me and Rob kinda made a conscious decision to not play the radio game at all on Simple Math and Cope even when we were asked,” Hull says. “We were kinda youthful and against the idea of playing free radio shows, the concept didn’t make any sense to us.” Not only did A Black Mile To The Surface become the band’s most critically acclaimed album, after years of frustrating conversations with execs and radio pluggers, they scored an legitimate hit with “The Gold.” “It doesn’t really change anything about our lives. It’s nice to hear it sometimes or your mom will hear it somewhere,” Hull jokes. “There wasn’t a, ‘Oh, hey man we got a big radio song, and we can chill now.’”

Hull did not chill in the past four years. His long-running Bad Books project with Kevin Devine dropped III in 2019, a record that brought Phoebe Bridgers producer Ethan Gruska into the creative fold. Last April saw the release of Born Of You, a collection of 2008-2010 demos. In February, Manchester Orchestra announced The Million Masks Of God at the end of a lavishly produced and free livestreamed performance of A Black Mile To The Surface. Hull also contributed guest vocals on the most recent Tigers Jaw and Touche Amore albums, and is heavily involved with Foxing’s forthcoming fourth LP, which he believes might be their Black Mile-esque popular breakthrough. “They’re in the hunt for that, and that’s really exciting because pop songs are really fun to work on,” Hull reveals. “I was expecting them to be, ‘No, we want it to be weirder,’ and they were like, ‘More Michael Jackson.’ Hell yeah, let’s keep pushing it.” Related: The late King of Pop’s daughter has a Black Mile To The Surface tattoo on her arm and Hull and McDowell produced her debut album.

Still, The Million Masks Of God came together at a luxurious pace. Splitting time between their Echo Mountain homebase in North Carolina and Gruska’s newly built Los Angeles studio, Hull and McDowell took months of time off to revisit songs with fresh ears and establish motifs both within The Million Masks Of God and its predecessor. Hull designed the opening lullabye “Inaudible” as a flipside of A Black Mile To The Surface‘s “The Maze,” a tribute to Hull’s daughter Mayzie that’s been used for numerous film trailers since. On the new intro track, a father is forced to have a painful conversation with his father — “Wheel you down to the old folks’ home/ Are you listening to me?” — and I’d be remiss to not mention the Dipset and Ghostface Killah influence in its clever use of repetitive rhyme.

The album reaches an early peak with Hull’s encounter with the Angel of Death and slowly deescalates with a series of gorgeous slow burns before ending with “The Internet,” a song of mourning that likens a loved one to what Hull deems the most powerful force in existence. “I loved this album representing the angst and anger and confusion and adrenaline of earlier life,” Hull explains. “The hope was as the listener you’re coming to terms with things, you’re feeling healthier, maybe you’re feeling in a better spot, there’s still jabs of real life that come and get you. But can we slowly lay the listener down.”

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