In Darkness, Light
For a band with a name like Murder by Death, an album name like Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon might create expectations of angry, raging guitars and harshly pounding drums. But Murder by Death is a band that trades in symbolism, in narratives and concepts, in a confluence of genres that’s endearingly original. Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon is the Indiana quintet’s sixth studio album, following 2010’s Good Morning, Magpie. Unlike some of the band’s previous records, this is not a concept album – but it’s still laden with persistent themes of mortality, environmental change, and nostalgia as it blends punk rock sensibilities with alt-country flavor.
Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon begins with a metaphorical bitter pill on “My Hill,” where vocalist and guitarist Adam Turla sings about the destruction of the landscape due to urban development. While it starts out with low vocals and simple guitar that sounds almost like a haunting electric banjo, the song picks up energy, the guitars getting louder and louder as Turla chants about how the “rich folks choke on billow and smoke.” Several tracks on the album extrapolate on this theme of cynicism and destruction, like the jig “The Curse of Elkhart” where “the lakes are boiling, the rivers swell,” or “No Oath, No Spell,” where Turla sings “There’s no hell but the one we made,” his musings on mortality accompanied by rich blends of piano and cello melodies. The slow, jazzy lament “Oh, To Be an Animal” is a dirge for this “loneliest of times.” But even on “No Oath, No Spell,” there is a feeling of resiliency and hope.
This is clearest on the joyous “Lost River.” Although it emerges from a series of eerie effects played over light, tinkling keys, the keys pick up speed and come charging in, supported by shaking maracas and warm guitar and cello melodies that create a comforting, folksy sound. Turla brings us into another narrative, about nostalgia for an idyllic spot (and perhaps a lost love), where “the croak of frogs will lead you true.” “Lost River,” the single “I Came Around,” and the album’s final track “Ghost Fields” comprise a coterie of bright, folksy tunes that exude a sense of happiness even as they expound on mortality and judgement. “Ghost Fields” features a warm, homey cello and accordion that waltz with rich guitar arpeggios as Turla spins a pastoral about “This girl, this boy / they were part of the land / what happens to the places we used to tend?” The band repeatedly evokes the loss of place, the loss of natural space and life throughout Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, even at its most jovial moments. The fields Turla sings about in the last track are “ghost” fields, after all; pale shadows of what they used to be, the remnants of another time, before urban sprawl and development.
Murder by Death clearly has a knack for creating conceptually rich, lyrically dense albums, toying with a variety of styles. Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon feels most at home on the folksy, alt-country tracks, but the band veers to and fro, never committing to any one genre, dipping into formulaic pop-punk and beautiful, orchestral instrumentals, just as it shifts from cynicism to hope and back, inhabiting a space that’s somewhere in between, fluid and always in transition.