What exactly happened to Murder by Death? This Bloomington, Indiana five-piece, throughout their fifteen-year career, have accustomed us to a clever mix of indie folk (whatever this generic genre tag means anyway, considering how it has—to this point—worked as nothing more than an umbrella phrase, bringing together bands as artistically diverse as Midlake and the Decemberists) and alternative country, always supporting their music with intelligent lyrics and dark if not outright macabre humor.
With their latest effort, Big Dark Love, Murder by Death have reached an impressive milestone with their seventh studio album, having been released on Bloodshot Records, home of some of the finest alternative country musicians out there; mentioning only Justin Townes Earle and Neko Case may be enough to convince you. Big Dark Love is a concept album whose theme shouldn’t be very hard for the listener to identify: it all revolves around the various ideas and applications of love spacing from the kind of affection that becomes obsession to a total devotion, even passing through to parental love.
While their approach has essentially remained the same, the outcome that is found on Big Dark Love marks a deep separation from their past efforts. Musically speaking, Murder by Death has simply changed; where the aforementioned dark ‘indie country’ (please pardon this awful but necessary description) reigned as the primary focus in their previous albums, something new now stands out—something that is exceedingly difficult to define in terms of a genre.
The first song of the lot, ‘I Shot an Arrow’, strikes you right in the head and sadly not because of its outstanding qualities, but rather for being unexpectedly different from the past—perhaps too much. The initial, repetitive (yet well-built—it wouldn’t make for a bad rhythmic cut on a trip-hop album) drum loop and chord synths sound somehow strange being featured on Big Dark Love; is this Murder by Death? Really?
‘It Will Never Die’ brings back the soul of ’90’s indie rock à la Belle & Sebastian; on the other hand, ‘Solitary One’ and its laconic trumpet—as well as the title track—hold high the flag of gloominess, approaching something along the lines of Cursive.
As previously stated, the compositions oscillate widely; ‘Last Thing’ is an old-fashioned dancey tune, driven by a vigorously strummed guitar, accompanied by banjo, and flourished with uplifting drums and tambourine, all of which compile and climax in a choral explosion that repeats the catchy refrain, ‘that’s the last thing I wanna do’. ‘Natural Pearl’, which is just a little more than two minutes long, is deeply rooted in traditional country music; nothing sounds more dated than this and still, it’s a pleasure to hear it and know that the band didn’t let the whole album meander towards this new direction. The final track, ‘Hunted’, pushes all of this further, stripping even the sound quality to a new low; the voice, singing from a distance, narrates with a few lapidary verses the suffering of a now-lonely man.
Long-time fans of Murder by Death will likely react disorderly over what is waiting to be found on Big Dark Love. Some will throw rocks and want to sew their ears shut at the idea of a change in sound that brings about more of a pop influence. Instead, those who approach Murder by Death for the first time are going to find themselves lost in a kaleidoscope of sounds and styles. I have found myself to be someone who willfully belongs to the crowd of people who can define themselves as hardcore fans of Murder by Death, and yet I don’t want to bash the band, belittle their choice to become more ‘mainstream’, or accuse them of betrayal. Murder by Death still sound good most of the time and still compose amazing songs, but unfortunately they sure seem to have lost, once and for all, a good part of their typical dark side. Even after this realization though, after seven albums and fifteen years, I’m not giving up on them yet.
01) I Shot an Arrow
02) Strange Eyes
03) Big Dark Love
04) Dream in Red
05) Solitary One
06) Send Me Home
07) Last Thing
08) Natural Pearl
09) It Will Never Die