Following the massive success of Fleet Foxes, there was a hum of anticipation amongst bearded plaid-shirt wearers when their UK label Bella Union began to talk about their next backwoods-folk signing from the USA, Rhode Island quartet The Low Anthem. Mixing hushed, plaintive tracks with more abrasive, Tom Waitsian explorations, their debut album for the label Oh My God, Charlie Darwin managed the impressive feat of satisfying those looking for a new gang of introspective troubadours, whilst also marking The Low Anthem out as bunch with their own musical perspective, not afraid to pull in many directions in the search for inspiration.
So, as they return with Smart Flesh, The Low Anthem have their own swirl of anticipation building around them, and they’ve once again found a distinct direction to head towards rather than following in anyone else’s footsteps, or the ones they’re already tread.
They’ve done so by ignoring that abrasive, rabble-rousing direction that made their debut such an interesting contrast. It’s pretty much one mood from start to finish on Smart Flesh, and that mood is definitely downbeat. There are a couple of more rousing moments, ‘Boeing 737’ building up some Arcade Fire-esque momentum, and ‘Hey, All You Hippies!’ cracking open some Basement Tapes vibes. However, they seem more like the other side of The Low Anthem rustling up a fuss, rather than the abrupt change in tempo that ‘The Horizon Is A Beltway’ gave their debut. It might sound strange to criticise a record for having a cohesive sound throughout, but without those more startling moments, Smart Flesh can pass you by in parts.
This occasional lack of focus is not helped by ‘Wire’, a lengthy instrumental right at the album’s centre that stops any momentum dead. It’s a lovely bit of music, gentle woodwind tracing a languid, delicate melody, but in the midst of more straightforward acoustic tracks, it feels more like an opportunity to pop out for some snacks.
‘Wire’ does signify some of the musical avenues down which The Low Anthem take their second LP, the atmospheric production and wider instrumental palette continuing throughout. It also proceeds the album’s standout track, ‘Burn’, which showcases another key influence that you might not expect from The Low Anthem. Slowly unraveling over a whirling organ, the track finds Jeff Prystowsky channeling the broken croon and poetic tone of Leonard Cohen. With a haunting saw wavering in the background, it’s a genuinely beautiful moment.
As part of a longer discography, Smart Flesh will probably stand as a good, solid point in The Low Anthem’s career, a sign of the band developing their sound and their songwriting before delivering something truly special. As it stands at the moment, this record does look slightly dull next to the bright sparkle of their breakthrough.
6Aaron Lavery's Score