“I almost think of it as a series of novels,” Murder by Death frontman Adam Turla shared of his band’s album output in a press release ahead of the release of their latest LP, Spell/Bound. While storytelling is generally a touchstone of the folk and Americana traditions the Louisville band pull from, few songwriters within these genres have expanded the scope of their vision the way MBD have, from the comedic song titles on the also comedically named Like The Exorcist, but More Breakdancing released two decades ago at the beginning of their career to the cinematic heights of such epics as the 2008 album opener “Comin’ Home,” which emphasized Turla’s not entirely un-Johnny-Cash-like baritone atop explosive instrumentals.
This new album, of course, was fed by the literary potential of pandemic downtime and the front-row view we’ve all had since 2020 of global and national catastrophe playing out daily on each of the various screens crowding our quarantine setups. According to Turla, the record “shot out of [him] like a bolt of energy” after a year of not touching a guitar, both instrumental and lyrical portions of the project gelling into a collection of songs that occasionally feel experimental to the band’s catalog with surprising influences like Mazzy Star, Serge Gainsbourg, Massive Attack, and The Cure finding their way into the compositions.
“I have never enjoyed writing or recording an album more than this,” Turla shares of the new LP. “I think it was due to the focus I'd had to spend doing accounting and non-creative work to make sure our businesses and employees could weather the pandemic—I was simply relieved and overjoyed to be doing something else. To summon these songs from the ether and cultivate the chord changes, refine the lyrics, just make those hundreds of little changes, was so much more fulfilling than looking at spreadsheets, packing mail-order, or worrying over the bank accounts. It’s an album of our times, the fragile country we live in, and the emotions that come with the weight of the world.”
With the album out today, Turla took the time to break down how each song came together for us. Listen along and read about each track below.
1. “Get Up”
I started writing this song in about 2016, reworked it over and over again to try to get it on The Other Shore (2018), but it never came together in real life how I imagined it in my head. Then, when I started working on it again in 2021, it all made sense. One of the concepts of the song is our disconnected experience in a world of constant stimulus, and the loneliness that accompanies it. It also encompases one of the main elements of my lyrics, which I call “the relentless march of evil”—the never-ending spiral of greed that motivates much of human existence. I allude to that with one of my favorite lines from the album: “It’s a bitter truth that’s sinkin’ in / When you’re fightin’ the devils they’ll do anything to win / The scales are tipped with poison.”
2. “Never Be”
“Never Be” is, in a way, about watching children being recruited as extremists, and is sung as a mantra warding off the temptation to succumb to that failed ideology—“I’ll never be.” It tackles the idea that you need to be aggressive or cutthroat to succeed, and how we’re bound up in those illusions and use them to puff ourselves up, ultimately destroying ourselves and others. It shares sonic similarities—especially in the string section—to “Get Up.” We arranged Sarah and Emma’s string parts to be reminiscent of Serge Gainsbourg arrangements.
3. “Everything Must Rest”
This is an upbeat song about the inevitability of death, and the shared emotions that come with loss. Sarah wrote the cello part, and I sat down with a phone recording of it a few months later and this song popped out in about 30 minutes. It has some of the most metaphorical and obscure lyrics on the album, and is set to a song that gives nods to The The and The Cure. I was very excited to play my six-string bass as the lead line that appears after the first chorus and during the outro. It’s a bop.
This was another song that came out quickly in a wave of inspiration. Our keyboardist David fixed up an old Wurlitzer and lent it to me to write on, and I sat down and wrote this in one afternoon in a burst session. I had the idea of a woman who’s a wallflower at a party being ignored so much that she eventually just disappears. The music is an ode to Portishead and Massive Attack, with maybe some Elliott Smith for good measure.
One of the stranger songs on the album, and the hardest to communicate to the band, but it came out great, in my opinion. I had to tell the band “trust me” on the way we arranged it. The first trick was for everyone to learn how to play every thematic melody. Then we arranged the first half of the song, which is sort of a dark, ballady dirge vibe with essentially an instrumental chorus. Then, half way through the song, band members start flip-flopping melodies, trading off who’s playing which parts, and the arrangement climbs to a climactic explosion where, in the live version, I switch from acoustic guitar to electric and let it rip. It’s sort of a dare to the forces of change that shape our world to do their worst.
This song is a spell of vengeance, righteousness, and anger—it’s literally trying to will the evil away. Each lyric is trying to trap power into a force that becomes a promise of retribution. It’s about as aggressive as we’ve ever gotten.
“When” is about that feeling in a horror movie where the escape boat is in plain view, but there’s a sea of zombies between you and it. It’s about that horrible moment when you realize you’ve conned yourself into a lie because it was the easy thing to do, but now it’s too late. This song is pretty wild, using harmonic minors, augmented chords, and surprising chord changes. The timing also changes constantly, as we hold chords for different lengths for effects. Probably the hardest song to complete the arrangements on for the album.
8. “I’ll Go”
This is maybe the least strange and most beautiful song on the album—it’s an acceptance of death and the loss of the self. It’s about dying alone and being OK with it. Nods to The Band, Mazzy Star, more traditional music.
9. “Strange Song”
This song is basically a plea for normalcy, and is about the idea of communication—when something has failed for so long, use a different language. It’s got Samantha Crain (so does “Everything Must Rest”) on backup vocals, and I think it came out really well. There’s some kinda ’90s-vibe builds in the last half of the song, and I think I was basically trying to write a Björk song a la Hyperballad or something, in the style of Murder by Death. An epic finish to a big-sounding record.