The power of music is hard to quantify. How many of us are constantly on the lookout for something revelatory, something distinctive, something special? No matter how many favourite records you have, it’s a reassuring delight to think that there will be further additions to that list for as long as you keep on exploring. Sometimes they ride in on the crest of a wave of media hype, often they just appear quietly, without fanfare, and ransack your ears. For a lucky group of listeners, 2009’s ‘Oh My God Charlie Darwin‘ was one such record and its capacity to wow remains undiminished. Picked up by the remarkably consistent Bella Union, after being self-released in small numbers in 2008, The Low Anthem‘s third album became beloved of discerning listeners and bearded music monthlies alike. This time around, there is a sense of anticipation surrounding a new release by the band and ‘Smart Flesh’ has a lot to live up to.
Largely favouring plaintive, spacious vintage folk, proceedings are occasionally interrupted by Waitsian, muddied, junkyard rock and roll. While the more raucous moments are few and far between, the hypnotic qualities of the slower material are more than enough for this band to merit a place in your collection. Much of the album was recorded in a disused pasta sauce factory with microphones dotted across the floor space and the sound of ‘Smart Flesh’ is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Listen carefully to ‘Golden Cattle’ and it’s quite clear that lead vocalist Ben Knox Miller’s affecting performance is being picked up from afar; emptiness never sounded so good. ‘Love And Altar’ has a similarly airy feel, the attention to detail in creating this distinctive, raw sound utterly staggering. Miller sounds as if his vocal is being left somewhere in the past, the other voices in the band harmonising beautifully around him. It’s impressive through speakers but a listen via headphones left me more than a little choked up.
The emotions are stirred at numerous points throughout ‘Smart Flesh’, not least on ‘I’ll Take Out Your Ashes’. Talking of a delay in carrying out the deceased’s wishes, it is a sparse lament containing the perfectly captured and hugely evocative lyric, “I’ve combed your Alzheimer’s poetry for all that I wish for it to say.” The slightly detuned radio buzzing in the distance throughout is a bold but remarkably affecting touch, the background hum of life never letting up.
The half-way point is neatly marked by forlorn instrumental ‘Wire’ which, as it slowly unfurls, serves to highlight just how delicate the musicianship is on this beguiling album. There’s an audible intake of breath around the three minute mark and, though there are no vocals, the sense that there is someone in the room with you is there for the duration.
‘Apothecary Love’ is a swooning, strung-out meditation on love and longing, talking of “her sad, sad eyes, the burden she carried” and how “I’ve got the cure for the state that you’re in” only for the situation to be reversed by the time the song comes to a close. It’s one of a number of highlights on the record and a fine example of their ability to set compelling narratives to deft arrangements and lay siege to your mind.
Whether unleashing the musical saw on ‘Burn’ or deploying antique pump organs to emotive effect, there isn’t a note wasted on ‘Smart Flesh’. If it’s there, it’s there for a reason and it’s clear that there is cerebral weight behind this music. Watching the band live, Ben Knox Miller’s endless fidgeting between songs, retrieving instruments and general prodding at cables and pedals, tells the tale of musicians who care about capturing a very precise sound. The opportunities for intricate recording techniques ensure that there are notable differences between their sound in concert and on record, but the moments where the whole band go off mic and sing together at the front of the stage highlight the same obsession with detail.
When a racket is called for, a racket is delivered and ‘Boeing 737’, with its opening line of “I was in the air when the towers came down, in a bar on the eighty-forth floor”, demands a racket. A wash of sound rises up and carries you into Miller’s rasping delivery which doesn’t let up until it clatters to a halt 150 seconds later. It seems a staggering achievement on first listen, but in the context of the whole of ‘Smart Flesh’, the scaling of such heights seems almost ordinary.
The album concludes with its seven and a half minute title track with Miller delivering an intimate vocal with more than a hint of latter-day gravelly Dylan. Advancing at a pace that would aggravate the driver of a hearse and featuring a quite deliberately sibilant vocal, it is the mark of a band doing things their way. Perfectly measured and heartbreakingly sung, it is a mesmerising way to bring things to a close. Miller quietly growls to the character in the song that “in the end you’ll be alone” before giving the resigned instruction to “smoke yourself to sleep.” The track fades as the music ceases, creating a sense of the band physically retreating as they conclude their business, having given their all.
‘Oh My God Charlie Darwin’ was a truly special record, and its predecessor ‘What The Crow Brings’ is also worth seeking out, but ‘Smart Flesh’ is a defining moment. An album you’ll buy for other people just because you know they need to hear it. An album you’ll return to time and time again and look for when you need something special to capture how you’re feeling. Joyous, pensive, cathartic and hymnal in equal measure, this is the human condition set to music.