I am familiar with the life of the early church and knew that the followers of the risen Christ Jesus, those little Christs, those Christians, were followers of The Way.
I am fortunate enough to live in a city with a vibrant public radio station, one that hardly ever plays a song that you would also hear on Top 40. Over the past few months, WYEP has been playing Manchester Orchestra’s newest single, ‘The Way’. The music caught my ear, and the title scrolling across my radio display caught my Christian sensibilities. There was little in the lyrics that I might be able to think of as positively Christian, but that did not stop me from wondering about the band’s intentions.
Because of this nascent curiosity, I began listening to the EP from which the song comes, The Valley of Vision, Manchester Orchestra’s latest. I was absorbed by the five additional tracks nearly as much as the single, and I listened to it on repeat for a few days until I was playing it one evening on the living room speakers while my wife was around.
As the last track was coming to a close, she said “This reminds me of Noah Gundersen.” She knows how deeply I respect the sincerity of Gundersen’s lyrics because we have talked about his music before, and for the same reason I knew that she finds his music too glum to listen to regularly. I responded, “I know what you are saying… but I think this is a little more hopeful.”
It was a curious thing for me to say. I said it more out of intuition than logic. As soon as the words left my mouth, my wondering began afresh. I wondered what I meant. Where could something like that come from when I really had not attended to the lyrics closely enough to say for certain? Again, intuitively, I suggested that the music itself was a little more positive (upbeat maybe?), but that was an unsatisfying answer. I am not schooled enough in the technical aspects of music to be able to say so much. And so, her statement and my response and the EP continued to worry me for a couple more weeks.
Until I heard ‘The Way’, I was not properly aware of Manchester Orchestra. I had heard of them and heard some of the band’s music, but those songs only barely registered as something that “rung a bell.” I decided to listen to the discography to see if I could unearth and decipher some of the meaning that I felt must be under the densely symbolic lyrics.
I have spent more than a decade listening to Gundersen’s music while I have listened through Manchester Orchestra’s catalogue front to back only once.
Though Gundersens’ lyrics are heavily allusive and demand careful attention to appreciate in full, they are generally existential in character, inviting even a new listener to understand the experience of the speaker. Manchester Orchestra’s lyrics on the other hand, though they also seem to reference genuine experience, are layered deeply in dense imagery.
Frustrating as it is to try to analyze, I respect the lyricism. When listening, I try to trust the feelings the songs evoke in me as opposed to focusing on a robust literary critique, as I would advise anyone trying to pierce such dense imagery.
Hints and clues are all that I am able to attend to here, and so I might take my lead from whatever cursory information I can gather from a little internet research. Knowing Hull was disillusioned with his religious background was sufficient for me to begin to unwind the pain on each of the band’s albums, beginning with I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, a fairly clear reference to Mary the mother of Jesus.
Manchester Orchestra’s first five albums deal with some heavy topics. From childhood abuse to suicide to mass shootings, nothing is really held back. There is a deep engagement with the brokenness of the world with only halting suggestions that there may be hope in spite of all of the pain. ‘The Grocery’ on A Black Mile to the Surface holds all this heaviness together in one gut-wrenching song:
I don't know where I'm going but I'm going anyways So you leave the apartment, grab the gun under the bed
I want to reach above the paradox where nobody can see Want to hold a light to paradigm and strip it to its feet I want to feel the way my father felt, is it easier for me? I want to know if there's a higher love oblivious to me
So you walk in the grocery and you unload several rounds "Don't you dare move a muscle," cardboard cutout ads
I want to reach above the paradox where nobody can see Want to hold a light to paradigm and strip it to its feet I want to feel the way your father felt, was it easy for belief? I want to know if there's a higher love he saw that I can't see
Looking back, it's obvious now You believe him or you don't
So you load up your pistol and you press it to your lips And you squeeze on the trigger, all it does is clicks
I want to reach above the para-blind where nobody could see Want to hold a light to paradise and see if I could sleep I want to feel the way our fathers felt when it swept them off their feet I want to know about that higher love you saw that can't be seen
The only obvious equation You believe it or you don't
I've been trying to find the right way to get out of here I've been trying to find the right way to get out of here This is the only way to go This is the only way
Over and over, the band’s songs return to pain, abuse, self-abuse, self-hatred, and always back to a quiet hope to hold onto some fierce love through it all. There are explicitly recurring themes across albums that soak in sorrow, from the embarrassment of relying on first-responders who were once high-school bullies, to the ache of loving someone who only gives abuse in response. The songs are mostly despondent and hopeless and lost, but not entirely. They keep seeking.
The band’s 2021 release, The Million Masks of God suggests, if in title alone, that in spite of the pain that has been wrestled with throughout the rest of the discography, there is still a consistent presence that buoys what little hope is left. It may look strange (it must look different, being one-of-a-million), but there is something essentially good behind the disguise. How bewildering! These lines especially stand out: “I don't want to hold back my faith any more. I don't want to fall into that man again,” and “Oh my God, let me extinguish the habit, the sequence, the loss in my mind. Now I believe in the ghost.” After A Black Mile to the Surface, The Million Masks of God almost sounds hopeful, a hope grounded in the possibility of belief, faith.
Only six months after The Million Masks of God, Machester Orchestra released a Christmas album with legitimate hymns, something I consider a very telling decision by any band. Anyone who chooses to publish versions of ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ and ‘O Holy Night’ is telling me that they are not afraid of considering Jesus as the Christ he claimed himself to be.
And that brings us to Manchester Orchestra’s latest, an EP titled The Valley of Vision. Does this release finally step away from the shame, pain, and abuse that characterizes the balance of the band’s music? No. Not at all. But if my intuition was right, there is a more explicit hope on this release.
I believe that the album hinges on its single, ‘The Way’:
I think I'm losing my mind Fear became the Fentanyl Hungry like the animal I've been sleeping in I see you're losing your light Cut you into decimals Drowning out the decibels Screaming in your head
Do you wanna find the antidote? Driving with the Holy Ghost Holy death, the holy smoke And does it start again? I've been drinking from a periscope Trying to watch my obstacles See how fully I've been broke Let me start again
I think I'm losing the line The altar is inaudible Dense and pathological Capillary thread When you run out of time The soul becomes synodical The weight is now phenomenal Deafening again
Are you feeling like an anecdote? Hovering to the hospital Huffing fire and holy smoke Does it start again? I've been lost beyond the telescope Goddamn diabolical God, forgive the prodigal And let me start again
Now I have lost My way, my way Now I have lost My way, the way, now I
I think I've finally found the antidote I've been lying to Holy Ghost Holy beds that fully broke Let me start again I've been sinking in the horoscope And love is never optional Holy death and holy smoke Let me start again
What does this song say? I’m not sure, but I trust my intuition. My gut tells me:
The speaker is trying to interpret, interpolate, or extrapolate a clear, straight path using telescopes, periscopes, horoscopes, decimals, measurements of varying trustworthiness;
But he is losing his way, his mind, losing the light, lost in a haze of spiritual confusion;
Still, he thinks he’s found the antidote, to stop lying to the Holy Ghost, and to stop seeing love as optional;
And he hopes to start again with another chance, like the prodigal son.
My feelings tell me that he has lost his way, but he is seeking the way. He is revisiting the only obvious question, torn between the meaning of life and the release of death, and he might be finding faith after all. This, then, is the only way to go.
Manchester Orchestra’s music is heavy: dreadfully and unapologetically heavy. I would not ask a friend or family member or reader to visit the catalogue. Such a task would be an unnecessary thing to bear for those ill-prepared to address those emotions.
But only now, in response to my wife’s challenge, can I explain why I felt an ounce of hope lightening the weighty burden of pain and despair. And to explain, let us return to the second half of what I did not know at the beginning, not until I began organizing my thoughts in preparation to write.
A quick search for “The Valley of Vision” will return two general results:
Reviews, links, and videos for Manchester Orchestra’s EP
Reviews, links, and listings for Arthur G. Bennett’s collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions
Other than that, there are a number of lesser known Christian bands with albums also titled The Valley of Vision, but pretty exclusively Christian bands, obviously referencing Bennett’s book.
Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, Thou has brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Thy glory.
Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive, that the valley is the place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells, deepest wells, and the deeper the wells the brighter Thy stars shine;
Let me find Thy light in my darkness, Thy life in my death, Thy joy in my sorrow, Thy grace in my sin, Thy riches in my poverty Thy glory in my valley.
In finding Manchester Orchestra’s source for the name of this EP, I believe I have also found the tool to unearth the hope deep under the darkness of the band’s lyrics.
Paul Frank Spencer is the owner of By Grace For Glory Publishing and author of Marvelous Light. He earned a BA and BSBA from the University of Pittsburgh and still lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Keep up with Spencer's reviews and creative writing at www.bgfg77.com.