With their 2009 breakthrough album, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, The Low Anthem positioned themselves at an unexplored point on alt country’s vast road map, somewhere near the intersection of Dylan, the Felice Brothers, Tom Waits and Steve Earle. Darwin’s sound achieved a kind of duality of purpose: on one hand rollicking barrelhouse blues, on the other introspective folk. Critics, quite rightly, loved it. If the follow-up, Smart Flesh, garnered fainter praise this can only be because it unified those strains into a more recognisable form of Americana, an ostensibly diluted form. This does Smart Flesh an injustice, however: it contains some of the bands finest moments. Burn was as close to a Leonard Cohen song as you can get without getting lawyers involved, while Boeing 737 married Dylan’s cracked apocalyptica with Jeff Mangum’s aeroplane obsession. But for whatever reason, it remains a vastly undervalued record, and one which presaged a creative hiatus for the band.
That five year career break has thankfully ended with the release of Eyeland. It is an album that will surprise many people, particularly those who wrongly criticised the band for a lack of imagination. The Low Anthem have never been afraid of grand statements, and Eyeland is their boldest move yet. On the face of it, what we have here is a good old fashioned concept album (and, in the near future, an attendant stage show with the band as a kind of pit orchestra). It tells a wilfully obscure tale based on a short story by singer and guitarist Ben Knox Miller, whose explanation is worth quoting in full:
‘The album exists in the dreamt reality of a few children who experience a traumatic break from innocence when an air hockey table catches fire and burns down one of their houses. The valley that they live in turns into a nightmare of paranoia and then there’s a battle to regain control over their consciousness.’
This kind of thing can go one of two ways. A pre-existing narrative can limit musical invention by driving the songwriting up narrower and more restrictive paths (think prog rock at its most excessive, and in particular the overblown but ultimately vacuous theatre-rock projects of Rick Wakeman where a proscriptive storyline renders songcraft meaningless). Alternatively, narrative constraints can be liberating, can give a songwriter freedom to pursue characters and situations he would not usually explore. Thankfully, the latter is wholly true of Eyeland. The Lynchian conceit – a world turning strange in the face of apparently banal events – works astonishingly well with self-consciously experimental new approach The Low Anthem have taken.
In Eyeland, the album’s onieric opener, does away almost completely with the country and folk sound of the band’s roots, opting instead for a slow-building panorama of sound that draws as heavily from electronica and sound art as from traditional musical forms. It is reminiscent of Mercury Rev circa All Is Dream, or even Radiohead at their most blissed-out. The urgency of Her Little Cosmos, with its surprising doo-wop backing vocals and synths that squeal and pop, bleeds into The Pepsi Moon, which perhaps more than anything else on the album recalls the band’s folkier material, all warmly plucked guitars and back-porch imagery. But even here the studio plays its part – muted horns lend an air of subtle psychedelia.
And the studio is almost a band member in its own right. The band discovered the recording space that would become known as Eyeland just after the release of Smart Flesh. Originally called the Columbus, the abandoned theatre in Providence was exactly what the band had been looking for. The only problem: it was so good that everybody wanted to use it. Miller and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Prystowsky recorded thirty different acts in the Columbus before finally getting round to making their own album, which had been brewing the whole time. Certain songs on Eyeland, you feel, couldn’t exist without that long gestation period and the accumulated knowledge that comes with spending heaps of time in the studio. Ozzie, for example, starts out as a simple rocker, touched with horns – a la Neutral Milk Hotel – before turning in on itself, distorting itself to a near standstill and re-emerging subtly changed. And the almost ambient soundscapes of Waved The Neon Seaweed – by turns dreamy and sinister – are clearly the result of time spent playing with studio toys rather than sleeping in a tour bus.
But this doesn’t mean that the album lacks personality. On the contrary, the time spent working together seems to have put Prystowsky and Miller back in touch with their collective creative muse. Behind The Airport Mirror is musically restrained (percussion that sounds like the tap of shoes on a hard floor – modern and at the same time evocative) and lyrically funny and disturbing. In The Air Hockey Fire is the mad, tender, Lynchian heart of the album, its simple strummed guitar punctuated by melodic keys. It is feather-light and undeniably beautiful. The fact that is followed directly by the album’s most outré piece of sonic exploration, wzgddrmtnwrdz (animal sounds, recorded voices, someone whistling Yellow Submarine), is a good indication of how far the band are willing to take their new-found levels of experimentalism. Miraculously, neither of these two songs feels out of place next to the other, and both seem like critical points in the album’s narrative. More importantly, both sound great as individual artistic statements.
Am I The Dream Or Am I The Dreamer is another high point, it pulsates into life with treated vocals and a speedy electronic groove, slips into some kind of free jazz freakout and constantly reconsiders its own position, moving tidally backwards and forwards for six minutes, the tension between past and future never letting up. Dream Killer creates a different kind of tension – between the softness of the piano and voice and the violence of the lyrics, while closing track The Circular Ruins In Euphio is as ambient as they come, a still millpond of sound that provides enough resolution to be satisfying, without ever jettisoning the latent stresses that reside in the album’s themes of altered reality and lost innocence.
This sort of thing doesn’t work if the songs are not consistently excellent – these lofty themes and big ideas can’t be held up by patchy constituent parts. Fortunately the songs here are among the best of the Low Anthem’s impressive career. Eyeland is like nothing else you are likely to hear, unless you have direct access to the future, but beneath the impressive and immersive layers of meaning and narrative, beneath the squall, the surprise and the silence, exists a spirited set of songs that are clearly the work of one of the best and most confident bands in America.
Released 17 June via Washington Square
Jun 18 Columbus Theatre ~ eyeland Record Release Spectacular! Providence, RI
Jun 19 Daryl’s House, Pawling, NY
Jun 20 Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, MA
Jun 21 Higher Ground, South Burlington, VT
Jun 22 Port City Music Hall, Portland, ME
Jun 24 U Street Music Hall, Washington, DC
Jun 25 Mr. Smalls Theatre, Millvale, PA
Jun 26 Underground Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Jun 27 City Winery, New York, NY
Jul 01 The Eclectic, Willimantic, CT
Jul 11 Borderline ~ SOLD OUT, London, UK
Jul 13 Broadcast ~ SOLD OUT, Glasgow, UK