Murder by Death has never been an easy band to rattle off about in mixed conversation. Tip-toeing the line between the morose, the biblical, the blood-lusting villainous depths of literary murder-folk and Southern gothic, the Indiana group has done its share of shapeshifting over the years. After pretty much perfecting the bleak art of melancholic anti-country ballads, the band’s muses have been polished slightly on Big Dark Love, uncovering dirty pop opuses to skip in tandem with MBD’s multi-instrumental menageries.
Opening with “I Shot an Arrow,” the album establishes its parameters instantly with a throbbing dance-beat, softened by Sarah Balliet’s weaving cello lines, as well as new member David Fountain’s horn flourishes. Ordinarily über-baritoned vocalist Adam Turla extends his impressive range, singing “I had a dream too big for the world/get me out of here/take me to the edge of town to the underground/it can’t be that far” like a man pleading with an unmoved deity.
Following this, “Strange Eyes” confesses a kind of hypnotism-by-iris, driven by what approximates synth-powered Euro-pop, but which is more or less some sweeping key chords and Balliet’s thwumpy cello. Its similarities in feeling to College and Electric Youth’s “A Real Hero” notwithstanding, the track is a welcome turning point for Turla’s typically frown-faced allusions, and a perfect indicator of the album’s noticeably more upbeat (mostly) vibe.
The reluctant anthem “Dream in Red” acts as a bridge between MBD’s lighter, more experimental fare, and the darker elements of their past in a perfect marriage, Turla singing, doubtless with a glower, “I saw you walking down by the river, down by the water/dragging a heavy load/what I saw, I don’t know if I believe it/does it make it so?”
As a conceptual piece, Big Dark Love comes teeming with songs about love in all its guises?be they loving, lustful, sinful or murderous. Turla and company’s sordid devotions to aural abattoirs are infectious to anyone familiar with sad or hopeless tales. The difference with Big Dark Love is that they seem to be dusting off the dirt from their boots at the front door a bit. Even on the rousing punk-grass dust-up of “Last Thing,” the band manages to find the bright side eventually, as Turla croons, “I know it’s impossible to fight/and I know that still we’ll be alright/and if some other force could burn away the darkness/I would welcome it ‘cause I’m done waiting for the sun.”
For a band whose focal points seem to morph with each and every release, Big Dark Love sounds less like an evolution and more like an about-face from the tenets of their melancholic brew of gothic-folk sing-alongs and foot-stomping death ballads. That the band was able to perform such a feat without rocking the boat too much is a testament to its talents as a unit. Their willingness to stray from their comfort zone has yielded one of the more impressive collections of songs the band has put out since their cinematic high watermark In Boca Al Lupo.