Like an actor who’s always cast as Rosencrantz while his brother gets Hamlet, Satan has had to watch Jesus Christ superstarring in a canonical rock opera for decades. Though I’m sure the old fiend has enjoyed heavy metal’s watch over his cult’s flame, gospel’s failure to stomp it out, and rockabilly’s first 400 attempts to bring Byron back from the grave, the electric guitar had yet to accompany him in a role worthy of his range. So last year–tired, perhaps, of crowded auditions in the big scenes–he went down to Bloomington, Indiana, and fired up some small-town country goths.
Satan’s had traffic with such bands before. I mean, I love Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds–but who do you think would let those guys sign a “record” contract? Satan and satanic figures have gotten interesting treatment in Cave’s oeuvre, and Cave even went so far as to write a country-goth novel. But the Bad Seeds were never country enough to keep their devil appropriately ugly: by the end of “Loverman” he’s even getting laid. A really frightening country-goth epic requires the willingness to both humanize and deglamorize evil–to present, as the old Christian epic poets did, a genuinely unflattering portrait of sin.
Enter Little Joe Gould, an intense collegiate quartet with the usual drums and guitar plus creepy keyboards and the cello of Sarah Balliet, who ranges all over the instrument to get majestic low vibrato as well as fiddlelike wails. The band made fans of kids who saw them live, but some folks complained that their debut album, Like the Exorcist, but More Breakdancing (recorded in Chicago by Tim Iseler), was unfocused.
Then, as Balliet recounts in a recent online interview, the group came up with a song called “Killbot 2000,” an over-the-top retread of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in which youths showcasing their individualism together die a horrible death together. Lead singer and guitarist Adam Turla, who also writes fiction, was sufficiently taken with the massacre theme to spin a libretto around it, which the band then set to operatic tunes. Old Scratch secured the mass-murderer role, and you can just imagine him waltzing around with a bottle of champagne when he got the news. In October 2003 the band–by then renamed Murder by Death, after the 1976 screwball whodunit–released Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them? on the New York indie Eyeball Records.
Who Will Survive is a ten-song cycle in which Satan gets shot in a bar, recovers, and returns to eviscerate the small desert town where the assault occurred. And what was he doing in a bar, pray tell? Being dull. A decade ago, in the bloom of the rockabilly revival, he often starred in B productions as a hipster who could drink your beau under the jukebox and still charm the poodles off your skirt. But as Who Will Survive opens, with the creaky piano riff of “The Devil in Mexico,” Satan’s already slouched over his whiskey; he rambles obnoxiously till dawn, when another patron, possibly sick of his voice or possibly because he recognizes him, shoots him in the back. In short, the immortal beast enters in the guise of one of a million old drunks who think they can still hold their liquor.
Satan’s human aspect has been evolving for centuries. Milton’s Paradise Lost, written in the 1600s, made his rebellion against God seem an almost understandable reaction to the deity’s limitless power. The Romantics portrayed him as, um, a romantic figure. As literary sympathy for him has blossomed, the temptation to project his absolute evil onto individuals has grown too. The images that follow the shooting in Who Will Survive make it easy to interpret this new story as a simple allegory for current world events–where Milton’s Lucifer recuperated in the lake of fire, Murder by Death’s devil recovers in a hospital bed, bleeding crude oil into pails placed under him by opportunists. A line from “Three Men Hanging” describes the devil thus: “He had the look of a saint but the greed of a man.” That could caption a photograph of Osama bin Laden at worship, no? Or, for that matter, Bush during his Thanksgiving photo op with the troops.
But it also recalls the archetypal hypocrite of Paradise Lost, who, on his way to the Garden of Eden, sneaks (sneaks? the bastard stops to ask directions!) past the angel Uriel in the guise of a cherub: “[He] each perturbation smooth’d with outward calme / Artificer of fraud; and was the first / That practisd falshood under saintly shew, / Deep malice to conceale, couch’t with revenge.”
Sometimes Satan is just Satan, dammit–a timeless myth, not an allegory to pin to any man of our era. He does display an admittedly human tendency toward indiscriminate revenge on enemy populations. But after Satan rises from his antiseptic lair it’s clear he’s not just a nasty mortal: In “A Masters in Reverse Psychology” a man tries to shoot at him in the moonlight, but this time the bullets whistle through thin air, and you can imagine the fiend’s laughter as his victim empties his bullet chamber. His sense of humor isn’t impish, it’s vile–in “Three Men Hanging” a character decides to kill himself when he realizes that the three bodies he sees decorating a tree were probably cold before they were put in the nooses. The second-to-last song, a sparse piano-cello duet called “Pillar of Salt,” details a cruel prank played on a man who’s made a deal with the devil to get himself and his family out of the crumbling town. They abandon their house and, as drummer Alex Schrodt strikes up a tauntingly slow march on the snare, the man’s body falls apart in chunks: “And as the pieces fall, I will count them all,” he gasps.
Yet the reason “the sound of his voice it never got old”–as Turla puts it–is that there’s a bit of the baddie in everyone. And as Milton’s Belial said: “For who would lose, though full of pain, this intellectual being?” Milton, by most accounts a fairly religious Puritan, meant his rebellious angel as a cautionary figure, but the character has dramatic appeal; some theorize he made Lucifer sympathetic in an attempt to justify his own support of Cromwell in the revolt against Charles I, while others say he may have been rhetorically tempting the reader to see things Satan’s way in order to make his theological point. Either way, by lending the devil his powers of empathy, Milton laid the foundations for his future glamour. Not two hundred years later, Byron was painting his diabolical figures as proto-rock stars.
Murder by Death plays safer with hellfire than Milton did–they make it harder to pin a moral lesson on the tale by depriving it of hero and antihero alike. God is never asked for help and doesn’t offer any; a woman’s voice on the first track begs, “Someone say a Hail Mary for this house,” but the Virgin doesn’t come through either. On the final track, “End of the Line,” the last townsman standing claims he’s gathering his strength to get revenge on Satan in Jesus’s stead–but he sounds no more likely to make good on this quaky-voiced vow than Lucifer pledging to dethrone the Almighty. When everyone’s either evil or pathetic, you can’t jab your finger at anyone–you can only mourn. And unlike the Bad Seeds, Murder by Death isn’t going to let you off the hook by turning the Devil into a poor devil who just needs sex to make it all right.
Murder by Death’s Satan may display humanlike weaknesses, but not the ones that traditionally appeal to rock fans. He’s no libertine–he’s a bully, forgetting his old dream of conquering heaven, content with bringing hell to earth. The humans in the story seem hopeless too–the only positive action anyone takes is to “wrap the children up real tight / Stop the bleeding before it starts.” In fact, the whole thing smacks of pity bereft of hope–call it condescension–for entities, human or immortal, who challenge the powers above them. In the context of indie rock, this attitude casts an awfully harsh light on the not-so-young face of a specifically American myth, the rock ‘n’ roll rebel: after half a century he has yet to damage anyone who doesn’t already want to be damaged.
Murder by Death opens for Rasputina Sunday, April 18, 11:15 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn: 312-923-2000 or 312-559-1212.