Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
It's the survival of the fittest that tends to work and add up, as much as it tends to feel controversial when thinking about any claims that the meek will do anything substantial with the world when their prophesized time does dawn. The theory, introduced by one Herbert Spencer and used extensively by Charles Darwin - a man of bountiful white beard - in relation to his theories regarding natural selection and the sexual behaviors of humans and animals, seems to be extrapolated by Providence, Rhode Island band The Low Anthem, a three-piece folk group that chooses not to do anything the same way twice and which has written an album ("Oh My God, Charlie Darwin") that opens cans of worms as if they were postmen opening mailboxes. The album is a tumbling and rustically exotic piece of work that is constantly doing things that you had no idea it knew how to do. It begins with a lush, harmonious burst that could be from "For Emma, Forever Ago" or "Fleet Foxes," as it booms with the kind of clear water brilliance that those modern throwback albums did last year. "Charlie Darwin" is that opening number and it establishes the big idea or the big "think" of the record, or at least one of the big ideas or thoughts of the record and that seems to be, "Let's take a good look at this chaos that's supposed to be somewhat reasonable, that's supposed to make sense. Let's just look at it and see what we can tell." Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky and Jocie Adams keep all of the arrangements interesting, mixing periods and genres and giving it all this red feeling. They rip off little pieces of their own hearts and offer them out to each song they make, an offering to whatever gods and spirits they might have to answer to after they've been out gallivanting around. Ben Knox Miller sings on "Charlie Darwin," "Who can heed the words of Charlie Darwin/Fighting for a system built to fail/Spooning water from a broken vessel/As far as I can see there is no land. And who can heed the words of Charlie Darwin/ The lords of war just profit from decay/And trade their children's promise for the jingle/The way we trade our hard earned time for pay." It's such a powerful and moving opening song that it's almost difficult to not play it over and again before you allow the album to move on to the second song. It takes us through so much. It straps us in. It gives us some stress. It gives us some dirty guilt and it almost feels like it's performing a cleansing too. It lays down the thought that the intention of all of this - all of these operations, all of these stumbles and bumbles, glories and miseries - is not at all orderly or could follow any rules no matter how arbitrary they are. The fittest parts of Low Anthem songs, or rather the parts that will succeed them in death, are the moments when the band makes its protagonists the most vulnerable and confused people out there, running around with either a.) their heads cut off or b.) their heads fuzzy with locusts and sharp pains, possibly even exhaustion and exasperation. It makes these protagonists the same as us and while this is a goal of almost all songwriters, it's not as easy as wanting to do it. Miller, Prystowsky an Adams bring so many elements of the concept of evil or threat of evil into their music that it's riveting and over the course of this magnificent album, we see many different kinds of evolution and people tackling the abyss and what might lie at either the bottom of a black ocean or at the top of the heavens, where all the penthouses are. The universe is either controlled by a benevolent god who permits evil in man and nature, is simply chaotic without care or is indifferent. A quote from Herman Melville, in correspondence with Nathaniel Hawthorne as he wrestled with so many mental cyclones prior to writing his opus "Moby Dick," "The reason the mass of men fear God, and at the bottom dislike Him, is because they rather distrust His heart, and fancy Him all brain like a watch." It's with this assessment that Low Anthem might side on this record, as survival for the just, prosperity and happiness for the honest and just - those with goodness in their hearts - can't be guaranteed for whatever or whomever calls the shots might not be able to adjust to the storms. It's all just springs and metallic guts that can't be talked to. It's just a free-for-all so expect the unexpected. Expect the bottom to drop out and don't be too surprised if it doesn't happen. The chaos is yours to keep.
The Low Anthem Official Site
Bella Union Records