Manchester Orchestra’s Million Masks of God
The Million Masks of God feels like the project that Manchester Orchestra have always been working toward.
From the opening lines of “Inaudible,” Masks is most immediately an exploration of loss, particularly the deterioration and death of a parent: “You're inaudible / Thrown away like an audible / Wheel you down to the old folks' home / Are you listening to me?” From there, lead singer Andy Hull works through the cavalcade of emotions that accompanies such loss: the immediate grief; the resonant joys of life so intimately shared; the guilt of failures; the hope and faith of future reunion; and also the doubts, both of what eternity means and how life is to go on when shadowed by such a great absence.
To fully express this emotional whirlwind, Manchester Orchestra have crafted their most sonically complex album to date, incorporating elements they’ve experimented with over the years: the heaviness of A Black Mile to the Surface, the grandeur of Cope, the inwardness of Simple Math, the playfulness of Mean Everything to Nothing. The sound builds on itself from song to song only to mutate unexpectedly, forming an album that moves fluidly between stadium rock, country-tinged ballads, and ghostly electronic ruminations. It manages to be eerie, sorrowful, nostalgic, and ultimately redemptive. It’s a daunting attempt, and one that pays off powerfully.
The songwriting itself resembles a whirlwind, as lines are iterated across various tracks, forming structural rhymes, inversions, and repetitions. The songs “Angel of Death” and “Annie” are particularly rooted in this circular form. On “Angel of Death,” the line structure of “It felt like a first, but it wasn’t new / It felt like a sin, it was more like a noose” carries forward into “Annie”: “But it wasn’t engraved, it felt more like a bruise.” Additionally, on “Angel of Death,” Hull sings “If I’m the thief and you’re the proof,” but the roles are reversed on “Annie.” These lines imbue a sense of uncertainty to the early songs. As lyrics collide and perspectives shift, the audience is immersed in the overwhelming, conflicting emotions of one suffering loss.
This loss is real for the band—the album was formed out of the death of guitarist Robert McDowell's father. In addition to being bandmates, McDowell and Hull are also brothers-in-law. Hull stated that Masks was a way of “grappling with seeing what my best friend was going through, and me as well trying to process that.” Together, they experience joy and defeat, heartache and beauty—the breadth of existence which they work into Masks.
The audience is immersed in the overwhelming, conflicting emotions of one suffering loss.
Grief is the angel of death in the passenger seat, the omnipresent obstacle. In turn, it aggravates pangs of guilt, whose specter shows up repeatedly. For Hull, this guilt—and his attendant doubts—goes hand in hand with personal failure, a recurring theme throughout Manchester Orchestra’s music (as well as his languid side project, Right Away, Great Captain!). Hull, a pastor's son, has used songwriting to explore the complex dynamics of faith and doubt, sifting through imagined tragedies—bursts of anger, fatal car wrecks, infidelities, the banal shock of a mass shooting—to reflect the looseness he’s felt within his soul. Through it all, he’s seeking his place in the story, searching for solid ground from which to live fully and intentionally.
As Masks progresses, Hull seems to find that solid ground. On “Let it Storm,” he sings, “I don't want to hold back my faith anymore / I don't want to fall into that man again / I just want to keep both my feet on the floor." This strengthened faith doesn’t discount the pains of death or stinging doubts. But it is alive amid them and in spite of them, suffused with the Spirit’s “interloping fire.” The perseverance is captured poignantly on “Obstacle”: “There was laughter in the cold.”
This solid ground is not the end of the journey, but it marks a transformation which hurtles the focus outward. Manchester Orchestra have always been concerned with how the imagined sins that pervade their songs wreck the lives of those around them. To them, sin not only marks a failure of obedience, but a failure of devotion. So discovering this solid ground brings a powerful new love. It gives Hull the ability to live with the devotion he's clearly longed for—toward his wife and children, toward the memory of loved ones, and toward God. Specifically, it’s a devotion to God lived out through devotion to others, these masks of God. Hull heralds this devotion on “Telepath”: “In my mind, you are the road I chose to travel / Might as well have been the very last thing I decide . . . / You’re the one I wanted, want now, want when I am old.”
This coupled devotion—toward God and others, rooted in God’s faithfulness and the imago dei—is the passionate heart of the album. It’s the same devotion Paul exhorts in Romans 12:9: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love . . . Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” In this passage, and in many others throughout his letters, Paul outlines the sacrificial devotion that is to mark the community of believers. Hospitality, humility, patience, joy—these are the outpourings of love in action. God’s transformed people are to be witnesses to the world of his love and forgiveness. We demonstrably bear this testimony through our love. This love and devotion lift The Million Masks of God to a hope amid the pain and doubt. The title itself, taken from G.K. Chesterton’s poem “Gold Leaves,” speaks to the profound reflection of God’s love and forgiveness that we find in those around us.
As Hull, McDowell, and the rest of the band process their emotions together, they act out this devotion to one another. This transforms the album into something distinct and beautiful—a collective expression of sorrow and hope, as the entire band carries the burden of this loss. In a way that few other albums could achieve, Masks embodies its meaning. It exemplifies the love Paul speaks of when he calls us to “mourn with those who mourn.” In this way, The Million Masks of God is devotional praxis. I can hardly think of higher praise.