Love may be a many-splendored thing, but in the hands of Murder By Death, it’s also an instigator of pain and horror.
“Let me in / With my big, dark love," Adam Turla intones repeatedly on the latest Murder By Death album. Here he assumes the role of the Big Bad Wolf, with the instrumentation swirling around him to ratchet up the tension and force. Rather than tender swine, the narrator is banging on the door in search of compulsive sex to fill his id, more a carnal menace than paramour. In a wonderful effect, one easily begins to cower from the sound of this music, aware of one's pending victimization. It’s fitting then, that this record takes its name from the song featuring the aforementioned quotation: Big Dark Love.
Murder By Death has been an album-centric band since their 2003 sophomore release, Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them?. With certain records, they’ve written each song as a chapter in a narrative whole; on others, the songs are separate and linked by a singular theme. Big Dark Love fits into the latter category; here the Indiana quintet tackles various perspectives on the concept of love. Love may be a many-splendored thing, but in the distinctive worlds the group crafts, it’s also an instigator of pain and horror. As the title promises, it is big and dark, swampy and slithery, nasty and grimy, morbid and scary; yet, at love's nucleus, there is transcendence and beauty. The cover art conveys this masterfully, displaying a bayou at dusk, its elegance and ugliness inexorably linked.
The ten songs composing the record are largely impressionistic vignettes, glimpses into narrators’ mindsets rather than the constructed stories of the band’s past. This may disappoint some fans at first, but the approach benefits the theme of such a mercurial emotion as love. “Dream in Red” stands as the best example of this, depicting one unfortunate enough to witness their lover disposing of a body and trying to pass the dreadful experience off as a dream, or perhaps a nightmare. Strings rise up and sway, conjuring images of a lifeless form adrift on a river, Turla’s rich baritone sounding distant and emanating from a hidden place. Like many of the tracks, it ends abruptly, simulating the fleeting quality inherent to dreams. The motif of treating the narrators’ accounts as mere glimpses is adhered to throughout the record, which clocks in at just under a relatively brief 33 minutes.
Continuing the trend of their prior records, Murder By Death continues to expand their instrumental repertoire. While Sarah Balliet’s alternately mournful and ominous cello remains their ace in the hole, newcomer David Fountain’s array of banjo, keys, mandolin, trumpet, and flugelhorn add incalculable depth to the band’s palette. However, despite such new additions, the group maintains their goth-tinged brand of Americana alt-country. Even the presence of a synthesizer on several songs is used to imbue valued texture rather than jar the listener.
“I Shot an Arrow” kicks things off on a seductive groove, courtesy Matt Armstrong’s bass, Dagan Thogerson’s tumbling percussion, and Fountain’s piano plinking up between them. As Turla personifies a man caught up in a place and life he never envisioned, his chagrin rises to the fore with Balliet’s cello. Lead single “Strange Eyes” is harder to pin down, the lyrics largely detailing the narrator stating his inability to hide from another’s seductive vision, with Turla’s delivery making him sound as though he isn’t seeking concealment all that much. Lilting ethereal keys evoke a fog parting for the dawn. Drums shuffle in mounting intensity and the cello saws before a rapid fire breakdown emerges with searing violin, feral guitar and whiplash percussion. Come the end, vaguely mariachi-style horns usher the music to its close.
The title track opens with minimal, rickety percussion and sparse keys. Turla relates his first-person yarn of a misanthrope bogged down with mundane tasks and spitting out his window at passersby amid lo-fi production. "Big Dark Love" sounds as though it were recorded in a muffled tin room. One might initially think this a mistake, but its stylistic deliberateness emerges on the clearer and foreboding refrain: “I got the bends / I got the shakes / It never ends / It always aches." The changing fidelity is used to great effect in putting you in the narrator’s isolated and tortured psyche, leading to his terrifying demand to be let in somewhere with his big, dark love.
Standing as the record’s finest cut is “Send Me Home”, the most cinematically sprawling number in the tradition of “I Came Around” and “Lost River”. Its strength rests not only in its slowly unfurling grandeur, but in the heartrending tale of a terminally ill man asking a loved one to spare him pain via euthanasia. An austere yet shimmering church organ is soon joined by a wistful guitar, the strumming of which sounds as labored as the protagonist’s account of the misery he faces just getting out of bed. “Every morning a new pain / I weep to greet the day / Get me out of this wretched shell / Crack me open, wish me well," Turla sings, before asking his wife, child, whomever, to end his anguish. As a spectator, what is the more unenviable position to be in: the speaker or the addressee? The listener is placed in both persons’ shoes, with clear emotional and intellectual effects.
A similar idea appears in successive track “Last Thing”, which features a narrator similarly asking someone to sacrifice them so as not to be a burden. In this case, though, it seems not to be a fatal disease that is leading the speaker to physical death, but rather psychological illness that is debilitating him. A plucked banjo gives the tune an Appalachian aura, which is augmented by a lumbering bassline and a rather joyous, or at least upbeat, rhythm offsetting the self-deprecating lyrics.
Not every track here is of a morose vein. “Natural Pearl”, with its dreamy, Hawaiian vibe and vintage country-western drum pattern, is a testament to a new father’s love. One can envision a young dad leaning over his newborn daughter’s crib, imagining all her life has in store and the challenges in turn waiting for him. "Natural Pearl" is a genuinely sweet tune. “It Will Never Die” has some optimism hiding within it as well, and is the record’s finest representation of the band’s light-dark dichotomy. Lyrics vacillate from terrifying to invigorating imagery, from expressing loneliness to a feeling of being part of something larger and a resolve to continue despite adversity.
Wrapping the album is its most unsettling number, “Hunted”. Turla sings over an acoustic guitar in a haunted, distant tone, describing his obsessions with women from afar -- women whose homes he drives by and women who reach him only through his TV set. His desire is delusional, yet the character elicits some pathos. The song morphs into a thunderous pounding at the end, perhaps as a representation of the desperate narrator’s death rattle on a moonless highway.
Like each Murder By Death album, Big Dark Love requires repeated spins to provide the listener with all its rewards. It’s a dense, subtly layered document, and while it may not be their best, it could be the most ambitious installment of their oeuvre. Exploring the different manifestations of love in a range of pro-and-con scenarios is a bold endeavor, but a line in “It Will Never Die” sums up the equally ridiculous and sublime experience: “It’s a feeling of terror / But there’s also beauty in there".