The concept album often poses a risk for musicians. It’s the kind of gamble that has resulted in both Pet Sounds and Machina/The Machines of God. At this point, it’s hard to call Murder by Death gamblers, but they are certainly not strangers to thematic compositions. Most of MBD’s discography consists of concept albums, and their latest, Big Dark Love, is no exception.
Throughout their career, they’ve covered sin, morality, and loyalty. Now, Murder by Death dives into love. Even 2010’s Good Morning, Magpie, while not unified in theme, resulted from frontman Adam Turla’s retreat to the Great Smoky Mountains, where he “went into the woods with a backpack and a tent [and] came out two weeks later with a bunch of songs.” The concept album is a creative style that facilitates the looming, theatrical nature of the music they create.
Big Dark Love is brilliant where many MBD albums also thrive: in setting a stage. The textural expansion allowed by the addition of multi-instrumentalist David Fountain, coupled with a more comprehensive production approach, serves this end. The problem is that watching the band set up the stage is still more interesting than the production that follows.
The beginning of “I Shot an Arrow” feels like the dawn of a new era — engaging synth bass, tight percussion — but it lands flat. The dynamics at the peak of that song, along with the title track, “Send Me Home”, and several others, set a trend of more interesting ascensions than apogees. Blunt refrains like “Let me in/ Me and my big dark love” fall short of the coy, engrossing foreplay that leads to their climax.
At a macro level, however, Big Dark Love’s lyrics work. The album examines love through different lenses, offering interesting perspectives on loving to excess, not wanting to be a burden, and even unconditional love coming up against personal morality. But while Murder by Death excels at choosing an angle, the narratives and meager attempts at eclecticism lack the same energy. Murder by Death can conjure up a veil of smoke that demands attention. The question remains whether what’s behind the smoke will ever be as engrossing.
Essential Tracks: “I Shot an Arrow”, “Strange Eyes”, and “Hunted”