In the decade since Murder By Death has been around, they’ve cut quite the niche market for themselves. Though they can be regarded superficially for their doom and gloom motifs and brooding sonic palette, such an assessment is far too simplistic. True, they’re a band you need to be in the right mood for, but when that mood seizes you — usually between dusk and 4 a.m. on some humid summer night, a bottle of Irish whiskey or Kentucky bourbon and your stereo serving as your only company — there is no better fix for your jones. But what is often overlooked is the group’s penchant for fun (starting the Twitter hashtag #murderbydeathisnotametalband) and their genuine deftness as songwriters and musicians. Over the course of their six albums, the Indiana band has mined familiar territory of Southern Gothic tropes and imagery culled from the Book of Revelation, to the degree that one could criticize and say they’re falling into a hole of repetition. A more astute observation would be that they are continually adding new instrumentation and textures to refine and expand their signature sound, with their newest record, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, exemplifying that notion.
Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon finds the Murder By Death paradigm in place — tapping and merging American roots music to yield songs at once cinematic in scope and presentation and literary in their lyrical construction and themes. Murder By Death is a storyteller’s band, their narratives harkening to visions borne of Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy novels. Liquor bottles, cheap coffins containing dead bastards, forgotten lakes, flooded rivers, demonic protagonists, hoodoo, harlots and hellfire people the record, being the old standbys for frontman Adam Turla. Aside from his skill as a lyricist, Turla’s voice continues to deepen as the twang in it becomes more pronounced, its richness and resonating timbre growing proportionately. He is all but unrecognizable from when he sang on 2003’s Who Will Survive, and What Will be Left of Them? how buckshot was his bread and whiskey his water. It seems when referring to his voice comparisons are a necessity, so let’s get those out of the way…yes, he sounds like Johnny Cash and Nick Cave.
As always, the band’s ace in the hole is the cello of Sarah Balliet, ranging from frenzied to heart-dragging ball and chain. The great addition here, though, serving to undercut allegations that the band is simply regurgitating their past, is multi-instrumentalist Scott Brackett. The former Okkervil River and Shearwater member’s contributions of accordion, banjo, trumpet and more go a long way to fleshing out and putting some new paint on the band’s canvas. There is scarcely a band of Murder By Death’s age that has such an ear for musical history, incorporating blues, punk, country and western, folk, and even a dash of jazz, into their repertoire. Perhaps more than with any previous record, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, sees this brought to its fullest effect.
As with 2010’s Good Morning, Magpie, there seems to be no unifying plot connecting the songs, forsaking the concept album format of the three preceding records. This strengthens the songs as they stand as individual entities, rather than mere chapters. Opener “My Hill” is the sparsest and creepiest song of the set, with an Appalachian mandolin, reminiscent of a Civil War-era folk song, accompanying Turla’s whispery vocals mourning the encroachment of shopping marts, garbage heaps and rich folks on the natural world. The track segues into the shuffling drum patterns of “Lost River”, the slowly building music evoking the watery feel of its title. The twinkling piano drifts on the surface, a chugging guitar serves as the undercurrent and the swaying violin and cello lap against the riverbanks. “Hush now, creature / Dry your eyes / I know a place / Where a body can hide,” Turla intones comfortingly, though his intent is ambiguous — is the place he speaks of a location for retreat, or a dumping ground for an inconvenient corpse? “Though my days are over / You know where I’ll be / Swim that lost river to me,” Turla continues in the chorus, supported by the ghostly vocals of guest Samantha Crain, personifying a drowned lover beckoning to a mate on the shore to join him in the deep. This is romanticism as done by Murder By Death, the most endearing sentiment laced with the morbid, and yet, when the wave-breaking crescendo hits, it’s inescapably moving.
The group’s punk heritage is displayed on the more uproarious numbers (“Straight at the Sun”, “Hard World”, “Ramblin’”), conveyed largely by the distinctive low-end interplay of drummer Dagan Thogerson and bassist Matt Armstrong. The bass in particular rumbles like a primal beast mended with barbed wire and heavy machinery. The aforementioned quality of the band to let loose and have fun is clear on “I Came Around”, a celebratory account of a reprobate’s funeral that devolves into drunken debauchery. In both subject and music, it shares much in common with the Pogues’ “The Body of an American”, both songs opening like a maudlin ode before crashing into an accordion-led charge. “I never thought much about the man / He was always just drifting along / But a couple hours in / We were drunk as sin / I was wrong, I was wrong about him/ I came around,” Turla sings, toasting above the casket as the funeral party gets sloshed. Reputation for gloominess aside, it’s songs like this that showcase Murder By Death’s dark humor.
“Ramblin’” sees a spiritual return of the devil that once laid siege to a small border town elsewhere in the group’s oeuvre. As the buzzsaw guitar, frayed violin strings and scattershot drumming play on with escalating savagery, Turla recounts the travels and wicked antics perpetuated by the archon whose guise he assumes: “I was there in the Dark Age / In Europe, a pharaoh of the plague.” Toward the end, he howls in a pitched rage, the sound of an eternal going mad in the life everlasting. A brief instrumental interlude (“Queen Mab”) follows the ravings, which in turn leads into a final suite of the record’s most subdued songs. Both “Go to the Light” and “Oh, To Be an Animal” are of the down-tempo moodiness set for a night spent drinking your way through the nausea of an existential crisis. “Oh, it’s the loneliest of times,” Turla recites throughout the latter track, self-pitying and lovelorn, Balliet’s cello and Brackett’s trumpet sounding like the air around the narrator is itself weeping in empathy.
As with past records, Murder By Death continue their trend of sending out a record in style. Closer “Ghost Fields” is a simmering ballad, sounding like a reinterpretation of a Southern folk song soldiers from a century and a half ago would sing to themselves around a campfire as they awaited the next day’s battle. The refrain is one of the most evocative in the band’s catalog: “She bends with the wind / And he shifts like sand / I try to explain / But I’m not an eloquent man,” Turla sings before a wall of horns carries off his words.
All praise aside, perhaps the one flaw of the record is that its songs are not as immediately captivating as those on past releases, though that’s only a flaw if you choose to see it as such. The songs here take repeated listens to reveal themselves, the listener forced to peel slowly and listen in onion-like fashion, but once they’ve truly soaked in, they’re likely to have a longer lasting impression. Despite the album being so wonderfully conceived and executed, and such fine musicianship and songwriting displayed, it’s a shame Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon likely won’t prompt many to reevaluate their perception of Murder By Death. The band may end up staying in their established field, but when it’s a field they own, is that so wrong?