...My brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder — there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters — and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the "House of Usher."
It's easy to imagine the riotous villainy and hand wringing disquietude of the characters in a Murder by Death song populating Edgar Allan Poe's dim chambers and gnarled wood. In fact songwriter Adam Turla directly echoes the theme of the "The Fall of the House of Usher" on "Steam Rising" a song toward the end of the guilt-saturated album. "Black coal is filling up our homes. It seeps though the window cracks it slips through the floorboards...honey pack your bags and go, there is steam rising from the belly of the beat. There is hell on earth. There are demons beneath the sheets." Haunted by a dark cello, funereal drums and little else, the song is chilling in its detail of disintegration. It's one of the lighter songs on the new album In Bocca al Lupo, Turla said. "Near the end of the record I wanted to do songs -- not necessarily positive -- but I was looking for songs that didn't quite fit the bill. 'Steam Rising' is more about the presence of evil in our lives in general. Like in "The Fall of the House of Usher", the idea being the house as symbol for ourselves, and it starts to fall apart because of the people surrounding it.
Since nearly every other song touches on murder, death, violence and criminal suffering, perhaps the evil in our lives in general is as good a thematic summation of the Indiana band's thesis as any. Turla calls it the "idea of mistakes or sins. The characters are all people who have committed an act they regret or have affected others in a negative way."
"And in some cases the stories are about the people that have been affected by others. It's about causality and the repercussions of the actions we commit."
Many of Turla's characters are full of remorse. On "Raw Deal" a man in the gallows moans a lament for his sins over a minimal dirge strum and ghostly drum beat: "I preyed on my own people,took everything that they had. I laughed at their helplessness I left them for dead. now I'm tugging on this line but I can never gain any ground, and for the selfishness I displayed there is a punishment that I've found." The music is as foreboding as the lyrics, and it matches the shame and regret note for note. On the "Big Sleep" the band recreates the sounds and feeling of the last moments in the electric chair: "When they flip the switch, please do not stay. I couldn't bear for you to remember me like this." And on "Dead Men and Sinners" a beleaguered ship's crew "with icicles in their beards" toast to their impending doom with a foreboding sea shanty sing along. In other cases they have no regret, like "Sometimes the Line Walks You." "That song is a monologue, a man talking himself up. I guess he's murdered a lot of people, I never decided. But he's done some awful things. Brutal. He is one of the characters that doesn't care what he's done. I try to cover the spectrum of different takes on guilt."
The Johnny Cash reference in the song's title is apt. Turla's low rasp and eye for detail calls to mind the man in black throughout. In fact Turla comes off like a Cash with a degree in English Lit. "My dad was an art dealer," Turla told me in reference to his own aesthetic sensibility. "He wrote a book on Dante's Inferno. Salvador Dali painted water colors for sections of Heaven and Hell. That was something I looked over as I was writing about sin. Books about guilt are a normal part of life. Whether it's the new Testament or a Buddhist text, or Crime and Punishment. I tried to keep the album literary, but wanted it to be more like a horror novel. I don't like gore, but I love Hitchcock movies that are about the supernatural. "Someone called us 'American Gothic' recently, and that's totally it. In the original sense, not, like 'Oh, I'm so spooky!"
"I like the words and imagery that come with turn of the century America," said Turla, who studied English and Religion in college. And in that sense the Decemberists seem another likely comparison. The top hat and petticoat costumes in their promo photos help too. a Although Turla's antiquated tales are far more sinister, and even when the music rises to a rollicking stomp or a demon-summoning cacophony at sea, it's all tempered by the constant references to suffering. There are no hand maidens and sea captains falling in love here. Only dark men and darker deeds.
"My intention wasn't to bring everyone down, but to make people think about the things they do," Turla said. "And I wanted to end the album on a positive note, so the last line is "There is still time to start again."