For a band that has built its formidable, nearly 15-year career around a meticulous consideration for the effects of pressure, release, bombast, ecstasy, and highest-highs vs. lowest-lows, it is something to say that this is Murder By Death’s most dynamic release to date. On their seventh full-length album and first since their 2012 Bloodshot debut Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, the band’s signature sound (rootsy indie rock, cinematic gothic ballads, and rousing pub rock shout-alongs) mixes with enlivening new stylistic elements (touches of pop, synth-y electronics, and psych rock) only hinted at on previous albums.
Big Dark Love reflects a different, bigger, more complex side of Murder By Death. As hinted in the title, the 10 songs circle a central theme of love, only in this case, the oft-traveled topic is examined through non-traditional kaleidoscopes: the love of a parent for their child, the struggle between unconditional love and morality, loving to excess. Throughout life, as in song, there can sometimes be a dusky patina of despair overlaying glints of hope.
What characterizes the album is the tension inherent in a balancing act between the melancholic and the inspirational - much like signature Spiritualized or Morphine - and textures both synthetic and authentic in a way that late ‘90s-era Flaming Lips hadn’t figured out yet. The opener “I Shot an Arrow” leads with a romantically sullen warmth of shapely electric bass and swaying synth chords, backed by a boomy groove laid down by drummer Dagan Thogerson. Lead singer/guitarist Adam Turla pounces between notes and commands with his gravelly timbre, “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.”
Elsewhere, there are currents of lustrous simplicity: take the pop-affected magnetism as heard in the fanfare of punchy horn lines supplied by keys/horns/auxiliary player and new addition David Fountain in “Solitary One” and Turla’s heat-seeking vocal harmonies and show-stopping high notes of “Send Me Home.” “The Last Thing” is ruminative, driving folk, propelled by banjo, jangly acoustic guitar, tambourine, and Matt Armstrong’s charging bass. And later, “Natural Pearl” scuffles along like a punk rock Flying Burrito Brothers, replete with weepy pedal steel and dancing snare pattern.
Through all sounds and textures, sometimes it is the space between the notes that makes Big Dark Love so deep. The vast dynamics take on new meaning through layered, far-ranging and deftly orchestrated songwriting of the album title-track and “It Will Never Die.” The sonic panorama features a minimalist backdrop of warbly synth, Sarah Balliet’s melodic intertwining cello lines, and seismic shifts from a cavernous hush to a climatic, soaring summit, full of Explosions In The Sky reverb and a chest-thumping low end.