Review Summary: I believe it was Lewis Parry who said, "Forced happiness isn't happy; it's desperate."
Murder By Death sort of exploded into my consciousness a few months back when I was trying to decide on what album to listen to. Every now and then I feel bad about all of the albums on my computer that I haven't listened to yet and I'll become intensely motivated about listening to all of them. Most of the time I end up only listening to one or two of them, and I consider myself lucky that one day I chose Murder By Death's Who Will Survive And What Will Be Left Of Them. The tale about the devil coming to and eventually wreaking havoc in a small Western town blew me away, not just because it told a cohesive story, but because of the sheer desperation contained within the album. There's desperation in the townsfolk, who go from fear to complacency to bravery, and even desperation in the devil, angered by the turn of events and eager to set fire to the whole area.
It's been a constant theme in Murder By Death's music, partly because of the stories their songs tell, yes, but also because Adam Turla's voice seems to be the feeling personified. A modern day Johnny Cash backed by swelling cellos and driving drums, Turla's whiskey-stained vocals and tense hooks are probably my favorite part of Murder By Death's music. You can still recognize him as the vocalist from Murder By Death's earlier music, but his voice has become deeper and deeper with each successive album, culminating in his slightly eerie but just as emotional performance on their 2008 album Red Of Tooth And Claw (the prequel to Who Will Survive...), an album that has become one of my personal favorites as of late. It's hard to believe that the same man who sings the first lines to opener "Comin' Home" also belts out the last section of "Spring Break 1899" with all the force of a Midwest dust storm. Like them or not, Murder By Death's music has been a constant surprise, always leaving the listener guessing as to what will come next.
So where does Good Morning Magpie fit in? If Who Will Survive... was a dark desperation, In Bocca Al Lupo was a desperate search for perdition, and Red Of Tooth And Claw was a desperate hope, then Good Morning Magpie is a sort of desperate plea for happiness that ends up seeming darker than anything else they've written. "Kentucky Bourbon" and "As Long As There Is Whiskey In The World" show that the record's happiness is an artificial one, with all of the old darkness brewing underneath. Still, the music is admittedly brighter in these first songs. The drums are bouncy, the cello flutters excitedly, and even Turla's vocals have less of that unnerving quality they sometimes had on Red Of Tooth And Claw. "Foxglove" is even happier, with a sort of motivated beat driven by a snare drum and the ever-present groans of the cello, the hook "It was always you" seemingly a companion piece to "Could it be you?" from "Spring Break 1899."
If the album has a problem, it's the production; slightly muddled and fuzzy, I could see some fans missing the crystal clear sound that their earlier albums had. Turla's vocals almost sound slightly ethereal because of it, like they aren't all there. Still, it fits the music for the most part, and it doesn't stop "King Of The Gutters, Prince Of The Dogs" from being one of the band's greatest achievements. Here, Sarah Balliet shines with prominent cello licks that defy convention and are impossible to follow the first few listens. And as Turla croons "Nothing can touch me, nothing can touch me, no force, no sound..." it's almost enough to make me believe that all of this desperation is finally starting to pay off. Either way, Good Morning Magpie is yet another fine example from Murder By Death that sometimes the old paths are better, and that music is the most ancient thing there is because it was inside us from the start.