In spite of the band’s name, Murder By Death has never seemed driven by inner demons. Instead, the dark, churning indie-rock group has long refracted and reinterpreted the murder ballad—in the process sounding more fit for the box office than the confession box. That theatrical bent took a curious turn in recent years when frontman Adam Turla lowered his voice to a morbid baritone and started singing like the murder-ballad king himself, Johnny Cash. On Murder By Death’s sixth full-length, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, that homage to Cash both heightens and hinders a disjointed, uneven procession of songs.
To its credit, the disc’s first and final acts are solid. Opener “My Hill” swarms with plucked strings as Turla, sounding like a husk of himself, surveys the tragic aftermath of adolescent suburban misadventure. Spooky and peculiar, that sketch of a track segues breathlessly into the gentle, piano-led “Lost River,” in which Turla intones in his best Cash impersonation, “I know a place where a body can hide.” That place, apparently, is every blood-streaked nook and echoing cranny of the song itself. After a handful of muddled, upbeat tracks that mar Bitter Drink’s middle, the band settles into its skin again with “Ditch Lilly,” a meandering sprawl that lets its ink-black atmosphere slowly seep through.
There’s just no shaking the Cash thing, though. Naggingly, the album’s least successful song, “Hard World,” not only swipes Cash’s style—it strongly resembles a line from his “Ballad Of A Teenage Queen.” It’s so on-the-nose and understudy-like, it diminishes Turla’s many subtler strengths. Thankfully, by the time “Go To The Light” rolls around, Murder By Death has drawn all its threads together—yes, even the Cash infatuation—by letting all the band’s dark threads snake together organically. “A shadowy hand turns the page / A dark theater moves across the stage,” Turla croons amid booming percussion, spectral twang, and empty space. It still sounds eerily like the Man In Black, but at least that shadowy hand actually feels like Turla’s.