Tension has long been the driver of Adam Turla’s songwriting. Murder by Death’s catalog is chock full of people in peril, facing tough decisions, stuck in an ash-tinted liminal space between decision and ruin. The greater context around these characters—even biographical detail—is often scarce. Volumes of plot lie behind every lyric, but Turla mostly leaves it out or abstracts it. It’s like compressing a China Miéville novel into 11 tracks—without reading interviews or liner notes, you’d have no idea what the bigger picture is. In Murder by Death’s universe, that’s a feature, not a bug. The point isn’t the bigger picture, whatever major crisis is happening in the background. That only exists so Turla can zoom in and examine characters at crossroads.
So what’s the bigger picture of The Other Shore? Ravaged Earth. Fleeing survivors. Standard fare, considering it’s been 15 years nearly to the day since Murder by Death released Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them?, a haunting apocalyptic tale of the devil laying waste to a Mexican border town. Large-scale catastrophe is par for the course.
But zoom in on that dying planet, and we have the real story: two lovers whose paths diverged, one chasing the other through the cosmos. The first inflection point is”Alas”, which finds one protagonist agonizing over the choice to flee the ruined planet, resolute but devastated by the decision that must be made: “You need me to stay / but alas, I must go.”
“Alas” is restrained, like much of The Other Shore, which is the most striking difference between it and previous records. Murder by Death’s arrangements have always tended toward cacophonous, taking on the patois of a blacked-out bar band playing against the end of the world. Even songs that start slow often swell to a howling crescendo beyond recognition. That aesthetic could occasionally be challenging, drowning out the nuance of Turla’s lyrics. And up through 2015’s Big Dark Love, that loudness reigned supreme.
The Other Shore represents a new direction. It’s more precise and dynamic. Unafraid to start soft and stay that way. It’s fragile, both lyrically and musically. Yearning. Because the struggle here isn’t about survival. It’s about love. Nuanced arrangements and softer instrumentation bring this out. Accordions. Mandolins. High-octave piano scales on “Space”. The gently insistent cymbal tap of “Only Time” like an astral mariner’s heartbeat while Sarah Balliet delivers some of her most beautiful cello work yet—and then, without warning, a lonesome whistle floats in. Tracks like “Bloom” and “I Have Arrived” feel downright triumphant—a rarity in Murder by Death’s world. As the lovers hurtle separately through space, there’s an ember of hope. Of an eventual reunion on an alien world, where under “vermillion skies two shadows merge as one.”
Given the space theme and intense character focus, The Other Shore feels spiritually connected to Cloud Cult’s Light Chasers, which found a group of explorers on a one-way mission into the universe. Like Turla does here, Craig Minowa used the blankness of space as a foil to heighten the colors of humanity, exploring the fears and insecurities, joys and epiphanies and hopes of the crew even as their engines failed.
But let’s pump the brakes real quick. Yes, The Other Shore is a new direction for Murder by Death. But longtime fans will still find a lot to love. Ten seconds into “True Dark” and that’s clear. It’s classic Murder by Death: same jangly Old West barroom feel, same raspy cello and gothic organ, same rich baritone vocals, like Johnny Cash performing in Dodge City.
And for all the hope and uplift, The Other Shore ends on a down note. “The Last Night on Earth” recounts the ruin of Earth. Satellites dropping from the sky. Wild dogs in the schools. The utter death of hope. Even against the endless desire of star-crossing lovers, not everything is joy and peace. If it were, this wouldn’t be Murder by Death.