Manchester Orchestra solidly transitioned to lush indie rock territory with their cinematic fifth album A Black Mile to the Surface (2017). The band’s new record, The Million Masks of God (out today on Loma Vista Recordings) is the second album in the new creative phase A Black Mile introduced, in which Manchester Orchestra trades in its original emo/post-hardcore songs for high-production-value epics.
While writing A Black Mile to the Surface, the band’s lead songwriters Andy Hull and Robert McDowell had an “epiphany” about how they wanted to write their future albums: “movie albums.” Influenced by their experience writing the soundtrack to the 2016 film Swiss Army Man, Manchester Orchestra’s “movie albums” are a cross between concept albums and the pre-playlist era listening experience: albums intended to be listened to “in sequence and in a single sitting, with the songs working together to tell a bold, long-form narrative.”
The Million Masks of God starts with a startling reckoning with mortality, like welcoming a baby by pointing out they’re just on a journey toward death: “You’re inaudible / Thrown away like an audible / Wheel you down to the old folks home / Are you listening to me?” Masks’ loose narrative is based on the journey of a fictional character who encounters the Angel of Death and is shown various good, bad, and mundane scenes from his life. McDowell’s father’s 2019 passing further colored the album with more personal interpretations of the original material.
Lead singer Andy Hull explains: “If Black Mile was this idea of ‘from birth to death,’ this album would really be more about ‘from birth to beyond, focusing on the highs and lows of life and exploring what could possibly come next,’” he says.
However, in practice, it’s a little hard to tease out this narrative from the songs. Masks’ lyrics are more abstract and disjointed compared to many of Manchester Orchestra’s older albums, made harder by the fact that the narrator of many of the songs seems to be revisiting someone else’s life (“Sleeping with the angel of death / I still find you in my shadow / Learning how the mirror reflects / I lose myself in you…I’m alive, but it isn’t the same as before / Slowly we become a single mold / Watching as my skin becomes your skin and starts to hold,” Hull sings as the journey begins in “Angel of Death”) The “I” and “you” in the songs seem to be fluid, muddying the narrative.
Many of the songs on the first side of the album have the same intensity and grandiosity as the songs from A Black Mile. Even though the tracks are generally pretty solid, as with the previous album, the similar wall of production and distortion causes the songs to blend into each other. Some of the repeated drum patterns and lyrics are intentional, trying to create “a dream-like montage of life experience,” though they also make some of the songs feel a little samey.
Hull says the band was very intentional with their sequencing of the album, putting the louder, more intense arrangements up front to “parallel the hectic nature of your early life and the anxiety and stresses of that stage.” However, the songs that really stand out and that advance the album beyond A Black Mile are the ones on the later part of the record that reflect “resolve and quiet and focus.” Songs “Telepath,” “Obstacle,” and “Way Back” accomplish this with their gentler, more acoustic approach. The song “Obstacle” has a refreshing, acoustic guitar quality to it that reminds me a lot of Relient K’s 2016 album Air For Free and will appeal to listeners who were big fans of “The Gold.” “Telepath” is particularly beautiful, as the narrator describes “Carving out our names into each piece of wood and concrete / Told her I don’t have a lot babe but you can have my soul.” It also has the best lyric on the record: “You’re the one I wanted, want now, want when I am old,” the narrator tells his love.
The song “Way Back” encapsulates many of the album’s themes: looking back on life and dealing with grief. As the narrator reflects on past loved ones and playing hide-and-seek with his child, he interweaves the phrases “Wave back / Way back,” throughout the chorus and background vocals. The similarity and ambiguity between the two phrases forms a deeply touching, understated goodbye to the past.
The Million Masks of God in some ways improves upon the formula that Hull and McDowell set out in A Black Mile to the Surface; the incorporation of slightly lighter-production songs on Side B shows a side of Manchester Orchestra that we haven’t often seen on their past albums and helps inject new life into the record. But despite the intricate co-production from Catherine Marks (The Killers, Local Natives) and Ethan Gruska (Phoebe Bridgers, Fiona Apple), nothing on Masks quite haunts your ear like the simple, taunting group vocal on “Virgin” off of 2011’s Simple Math (“We built this house with our hands, and our time, and our blood / You build this up in one day to fall downward and rust”) or prompts belted-out sing-alongs like the iconic “I believed you were crazy / You believed that you loved me” from A Black Mile’s surprise hit “The Gold.” Despite being more carefully constructed as a whole, Manchester Orchestra’s “new” sophomore album doesn’t compare to the lyrical acuity or memorable hooks of their actual sophomore album, 2009’s beloved Mean Everything to Nothing (see “I Can Feel A Hot One,” “100 Dollars,” “The River”).
As a sixth LP from an established band, The Million Masks of God comes up slightly lacking in its balance of lyricism, instrumentals, and narrative. But if we are to lean into Hull and McDowell’s belief that the “movie album” concept rebirthed the band, perhaps The Million Masks of God is a sophomore album that hints at good things to come in Manchester Orchestra’s undoubtedly long, new future.
The Million Masks of God is out now.