Murder by Death, ‘Big Dark Love’ – Album Review
Glance at the Billboard Hot 100 at any given moment, and you’ll be looking at a list of love songs – just a lot of songs about a lot of different types of love in varying states of function and dysfunction. Even Big Sean’s ‘I Don’t F--k With You’ is a love song if you want to be especially Nick Hornby about it.
But when literary gothic indie outfit Murder by Death set out to create their own comprehensive collection of unconventional love songs, you should expect they’ll come at the topic from unexpected angles.
‘Big Dark Love’ is the seventh full-length from the cello-tinged Indiana quintet and, like most of their others, is deeply rooted in its overarching narrative concept. But while albums like 2003’s ‘Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them?’ told an incredibly specific story (in that case: the devil wages war against a small Mexican border town), ‘Big Dark Love’ is more like an anthology of 10 self-contained tales.
Frontman Adam Turla and his whiskey-soaked baritone set much of the tone which – although slightly less bleak than 2012’s ‘Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon’ – is still achingly haunting. Turla embodies a disparate array of characters usually enveloped in a darker complexity of love – from someone who just witnessed his lover dispose of a body (‘Dream in Red’) to a terminally ill man pleading for a loved one to kill him (‘Send Me Home’). Each song provides only a fleeting glimpse into a unique world (the entire album clocks in at just 33 minutes), but it’s often more than enough time for the band to either develop an entire storyline or evoke subtle emotion.
That diversity is instantly apparent in the band’s different sonic incarnations throughout the album. This is Murder by Death's first with multi-instrumentalist David Fountain, and his banjo, mandolin and flugelhorn make sometimes slight but often integral appearances throughout. Album opener ‘I Shot an Arrow’ adds synths to their already lush soundscapes, leading to a vaguely Bowie-esque aura; ‘Solitary One’ features retro-style horns and New wave sensibilities; and ‘Strange Eyes’ crashes with an amazing orchestral crescendo that gives way to a searing, Dinosaur Jr.-type guitar solo.
But the scattered focus has its downside, too. With dalliances into different genres like R&B and psych-rock, ‘Big Dark Love’ doesn’t ever venture too deep into any one of them, and the album feels far less experimental than past releases. It’s about as close as Murder by Death have ever come to a pop album and, although there are some legitimately moving moments and complex arrangements, the instrumentals often tease that they’ll venture into more satisfying payoffs than they do.
Still, 'Big Dark Love' is mostly successful. The concept never feels heavy-handed and much of the music would stand up alongside Murder by Death's best work. It's only because we love them so much that we expected just a little bit more.