The Low Anthem’s previous album, the haunting Oh My God Charlie Darwin, was greeted with critical hosannas, so there are certainly heightened expectations for their fourth album, Smart Flesh (Nonesuch). I am happy to report that the Low Anthem has delivered another deeply felt consideration of the virtues and vices that have created the mythic American landscape that surrounds us.
For the new album, the band gathered an eclectic blend of traditional instruments and brought them to their studio, which is in an old pasta factory in Central Falls, RI. Instruments like jaw harp, musical saw, stylophone, antique pump organs, and oversize drum kits combine with the building’s cavernous spaces and high ceilings to create a sound that manages to be ethereal while remaining profoundly rooted in the American musical heritage.
Have you ever looked at a perfect miniature village in a snow globe and felt a certain poignancy tugging at your heart? That’s the feeling I had listening to the 11 songs on Smart Flesh. The dreamlike waltz “Apothecary Love,” and the gently sentimental “Matter of Time,” will transport you back to a simpler time. But in this particular dream, sadness is never far away, and can be found in the mournful opener “Ghost Woman Blues,” and in the rueful “I’ll Take Out Your Ashes.” “Boeing 737” is a raucous change of pace for the band, and one in which they manage to reference 9-11, Philippe Petit, Bob Dylan, and several other cultural touchstones over the course of two and a half pulsing minutes. You can see a non-embeddable video of the song here. Jocie Adams’ compelling instrumental “Wire,” a piece for three clarinets with echoes of Aaron Copland, represents a direction that the band should consider exploring further.
Smart Flesh is an album of American folk music. The Low Anthem is as iconoclastic in service to their genre as a band like Radiohead is to theirs. The songs here are often taken at a stately pace, and filled with a dignity that is too often missing in our daily lives these days. By presenting us with these portraits of our shared past, the Low Anthem is quietly but persuasively reminding us of all that has been lost.