photo by Shervin Lainez
Here’s a basic truth of music, or indeed any art: intensity is great for conceptualising but can be near impossible to sustain in the creation. It can spark the greatest thoughts; it also can chew you up and leave you on the side of the road as a haggard, ragged ball of ex-emotion.
However, the intensity that comes from great upheaval or movement or feeling in your life is so tempting, so vital, it remains a potent fuel – for the artist and for those of us who can’t resist a story about creation. So, when we get art after someone has gone through life altering experiences, we assume that it must have been permeating everything involved. How could it not?
Which brings us to Manchester Orchestra, back after four years with another album that bridges grand indie and nimble trad rock, big gestures and intimate vocals, once again steeped in powerful personal resonances - this time written in the wake of the death of the father of co-founder, Robert McDowell.
The Million Masks Of God is like a mix of It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol and The Seventh Seal, with maybe a bit of George R. R. Martin – for nothing says rock’n’roll like blending Capra, Dickens, Bergman and swordplay and witchery. That is, it’s a loose-concept album about a man facing snapshots of his life presented to him by the angel of death.
Ok, yes, even a dim music writer can figure out an album title and concept like that is not likely to be a throwaway. And they’ve got form in this, area of course, the four-piece from Atlanta, Georgia.
Their previous album, 2017’s Black Mile To The Surface, sprang from the birth of the first daughter of the other co-founder, and McDowell’s brother-in-law, songwriter/singer Andy Hull, and incorporated the story of a South Dakota mining town into its life cycle series of songs.
So, the story goes that Black Mile To The Surface was the “family” album and this is the “dealing with death” album. Big concepts, and even bigger emotions. But like a sportsman playing on emotion, you can’t sustain that and, as mentioned at the beginning, maybe you shouldn’t let it anyway.
How did Hull, McDowell and more recent bandmates, drummer Tim Very and bassist Andy Prince, find the balance in taking the intensity of the emotions that fed into the album and the control that’s needed to make a sustained collection of songs?
“I don’t have a great answer but I think it’s about the feeling of it. We were chasing an idea the entire time and the idea wasn’t really formed. It was an exciting thing, that it was a living organism as we were making this record,” says Hull, adding that in making Black Mile, their eagerness to build a concept was in part a way to “save the album” but this time the moves were organic and there from before the start.
“I think any time dealing with heavy subject matter, it can drag the whole thing down and make the whole thing sort of overwhelming. But when we started focusing on what the actual message of this album should be, it ended up being more of a celebration than focusing on death.
“A year before [McDowell’s father’s death] we both had sons, about five weeks apart from each other, and I would say that the birth of those boys in being a part of a new life and a new beginning happening, around the same time as Rob’s dad was dying, was a massive inspiration for me, in a weird way. It’s set a lot: here is the new beginning, and here is the ending.”
The beginning and end, or renewal, was not just some new age blather for them; it was central because “we don’t want to feel like the music is too overwhelming so that you can’t take your breath away. It should be both things: heavy and light, dark and bright.”
In one sense, Hull’s answer addresses how this album feels for us as listeners. Or how they were trying to make it feel for listeners. But I’m still curious as to how they controlled that intensity and mix of emotions.
“That was very hard. It was almost like we working on two different albums at the same time, because there would just be moments where I knew what I was writing about - and Robert is the only guy who records my vocals when we do it and I throw off a lot of lyrics a lot of the time - and there would be moments where I was like ‘man, I know you know what I’m talking about, but we haven’t quite had that talk yet’,” Hull says. “It culminated in a beautiful hugging, crying moment together in California where he said ‘I know what you’ve been doing, and I love it’.
“It was, for the two of us, a pretty life changing moment making this record. That part was not easy. None of that was easy; we just wanted to do it.”
It turns out another difficult moment came after the work was done, as they prepared to promote, and therefore talk about, the album, which will be released at the end of April.
“My biggest fear was, you know, not trying to utilise this as a selling point for what this record is about. Even with stuff with our publicist, talking about our bios, it wasn’t something that we really wanted to highlight, even though it’s a thing,” says Hull. “There just aren’t any really good answers about it.”
One of the reasons that it’s more than an album about death, is that Hull’s songs look at what happens after. That is, both in the lives that have gone and the lives that go on. And part of that is recognition of a place for blame just as much as acceptance in the process.
In one new song, Dinosaur, there is the line “All I do is repeat myself/And all my faults, I blame on someone else”. Yes, saying someone has to take some blame at times.
To pretend otherwise when looking at patterns of behaviour and the paths chosen by the songs’ characters, before death and renewal, would be disingenuous, if not outright deceitful. But stopping there isn’t truthful either.
Ask anyone who has issues with a parent well into adulthood and you’ll probably find that the dilemma for many of them has been accepting that that early childhood relationship was pivotal in setting their current path and emotional flaws, but at the same time not wanting to be the cliché and saying well that’s why I am who I am and done what I’ve done so my mistakes are not my fault.
“Yeah, there’s a great deal of personal responsibility that has to happen. I love that you say that about Dinosaur because that song is really written about my son, same with the song Obstacle, which was written the night before he was born. He was my ‘obstacle’: I didn’t know who this person was going to be, but I knew he had an appointment and he would show up,” Hull says.
“Dinosaur is really about what can I possibly do to not raise the wrong version, and how is that up to me? As the line says, ‘I just can’t redeem myself’: I won’t be able to fix the things I’ve done, and all the things I’ve blamed, all the lies I said were somebody else’s.
“I think [having] kids was the big eye-opener for me. Somebody in another interview asked me why I was still so focused on this concept, it was like, well I think this is where I live now. I’m just gonna think about this forever trying to think of interesting ways to ponder it in songs for a long time: how do I try and shift – and I had a great relationship with my father - through a very different relationship that I’ll probably have with my son.”
Any thoughts on it so far?
“Is it blame, is it life? Yeah,” he laughs. “I don’t think I’ve got any answers yet.”
In part two of this interview, Andrew Hull digs into the musical choices of, the widescreen thinking behind, and just what Neil Young had to do with, their sixth album. Read it here.
Manchester Orchestra’s The Million Masks Of God is out on April 30.