The Low Anthem had death on its collective mind. Its fine new album, “Smart Flesh,” out today (Feb. 22) opens with a visitation from lonely ghost and closes 10 songs later with a seven-minute meditation about slipping off this earth.
In between, there are many other references to loss, including a nod to 9/11 (“I was in the air when the towers came down in a bar on the 84th floor” in the musically rowdy “Boeing 737”) and a man laments not taking out a loved one’s remains following his/her cremation on “I’ll Take Out Your Ashes,” cloaked in the sense of guilt that can linger long after someone has passed.
The latter is not a topic you hear about in a song every day and that’s half of The Low Anthem’s charm. The Rhode Island quartet, who originally came together at Brown University, are all multi-instrumentalists, switching off on more than 30 instruments on “Smart Flesh,” most of them acoustic. Anything can be called into a service, from a saw to a transistor radio playing in the background to add ambience. All four members harmonize, but Ben Knox Miller carries the lead vocals with his haunting, spare, lovely voice. He can sound as country as the day is long on “Apothecary Love” or otherworldly on “Love and Altar.” As with 2008’s “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin,” The Low Anthem make no concessions to pop radio or current trends. They are delightfully unburdened by trying to fit into anyone’s preconceived notion of how they should sound. To that end, they recorded the album primarily in an abandoned pasta sauce factory in Rhode Island, with additional recording conducted in a small, garage-like facility to counterbalance the hollow hugeness of the empty factory.
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Without ever falling into the too-easy categorization of a retro act, The Low Anthem exists in the same musical space as The Carter Family or Hank Williams crossed with The Band. There’s also a delightful, fresh feeling that the quartet is making it up as they go along, yet they know with absolute certainty when they’ve got it right. This brings about moments of breathtaking beauty, such as on “Matter of Time” with Miller’s vulnerable voice surrounded by a mournful pump organ.
Halfway through the album, there’s a lovely clarinet instrumental, “Wire,” written and performed solely by Jocie Adams (all the other songs other than the cover of “Ghost Woman Blues” are credited to the foursome). It harkens back to the days of vinyl when there’s a break between the side one and side two. “Wire” serves as a elegant palate cleansing between the two halves. In this case, the second half seems to take a darker, dour look at love, life and death, culminating in the title track, about one’s final moments in many different scenarios (where the high wire walker from “Boeing 737” reappears).
With few exceptions like “Boeing 737” and funny (listen for the lines about Ronald Reagan), cascading “Hey, All You Hippies!,” “Smart Flesh” is internationally quiet. It demands your full attention by gently lulling you in, making you want to lean into the music, instead of yelling at you to do so. Your efforts will be well rewarded.