First of all, I don’t know why reviewers call Good Morning, Magpie “cheerier” than Murder by Death’s previous material. I’m not going to start a rant about how amateur I think the assessment is and about how these reviews undoubtedly look back to Who Will Survive, And What Will Be Left of Them? and proclaim that as the be all and end all of this band’s material. That’s just ignorant, man.
If by softer and cheerier the reviewers mean an electric guitar is barely heard in the foreground, then yes, this album is exponentially cheerier. The three or four “upbeat” songs still contain the lyrical heaviness, the darkness and the narrative dilemmas the band trademarked long ago. The musicianship on Good Morning, Magpie is excellent. The lyrics are enthralling. Listening to each song more and more gives me the equivalent fulfillment of finishing a book (I mean, they did just compose an album’s worth of material to Jeff Vandermeer’s Finch). In other words, this band packs a lot of shit into each song. They induce infection but foment a sense of failure and longing. Very contradictory, I know, but this is the beauty of Murder by Death. Their name is heavy metal and for dark subject matter, but it was chosen because there is humor in its overtly, obvious gothic deliberateness. I find examples of this jest in the title track, “Kentucky Bourbon” (a 30-second toast), and also in “You Don’t Miss Twice,” a fun foot-stomper about shaving your throat with a knife. Of course, “Foxglove” surprises the most. MBD has created beautiful music before (see: "Shiola" on In Bocca al Lupo), but this is different; it feels more complete and mature. It’s simple but complicated; it’s stripped down but incredibly distinct. I want to sing along to it and fall asleep to it.
On “Yes,” Adam Turla describes a scene at a graveyard where a pour soul lounges six feet under and the character who refrained from telling the corpse of his/her love sobs pathetically on the grave. “Make amends before it gets worse / if the heartache don’t get you first” is part of the chorus that’s repeated thoroughly throughout the song and is a laconic lesson from an older character who’s experienced pain in the past and is basically saying, “Get your ass up.” The music, though, is undeniably upbeat. Contradictory? Yes, I know it is.
"King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs," "Piece by Piece" and "Good Morning, Magpie" are vintage, very memorable Murder by Death tunes. The music on "King of the Gutters" is estimable; it builds upon the melodies created in the beginning of the track and lets them grow and rise and mature to old age. Turla embodies an old man who describes his jangling, hollow bones and his lost, down-and-out feelings, and he continues until he exclaims, “Nothing can touch me / nothing can touch me / no force no sound / I am king of the gutters, prince of the dogs,” falsely believing in his old past, maybe.
On the title track, I find complete comfort inside Sarah Balliet’s cello, strumming confidently and switching from long draws to delicate plucks as if she’s narrating your dream. Degan Thogerson slowly loosens his arms from the ropes throughout the song and eventually unties them and flails on his drum set. Matt Armstrong’s bass meanders and the band grooves into Turla’s rising vocals: “You carry me home, my love / still you carry me home, little dove.” The lyrics speak of triumph, but--like most of the material--the band places a solemn spin on it and ends with Turla’s deep baritone describing an ominous scene as the cello bellows in lament.
“White Noise” and “The Day” are examples of MBD’s sound evolving even further. The reviewers of this record are right about one thing: MBD knows how to place their music in a certain period while making it sound modern. No banality exists in this place, and I was surprised while listening to “White Noise” and its outro. Then “The Day”--what a great, strong closer.
This record will take its rightful place as successor to the throne of the rest of the band’s catalog. They consistently bang out good records and create music that sounds like nothing else that’s out there. I just shake my head at reading about a “cheerier” Murder by Death. But, on second thought, maybe those reviewers are right. I mean, it’s all about the contradiction, right?