Every day for the past few weeks I’ve listened to this album at least once. Some days I listen to it twice. When that’s not enough I’ve just put it on and let it go, endlessly repeating till I’ve got my fill. To say I love this album is an understatement. I’m obsessed with it, and I don’t know how I got to this point.
The band, based out of Rhode Island, was just barely on my radar before this. Their 2008 release, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, didn’t really resonate with me when it was released, so I really didn’t pay much attention to what they were doing for the next year or so. This begs the question as to why I would be even remotely interested in a band whose last release I found to be cold, sterile and for the most part boring? It doesn’t really make sense to me. Maybe it was just morbid curiosity, or maybe it was just because I try to listen to every “major” release that’s coming down the pipe. It could have been anything, but maybe, just maybe it was something else. Maybe I was drawn to this record. Maybe this is a record that so needs to be heard that it reaches out with its own planet sized gravitational pull and swallows up any and all who come within its reach.
In a month where Radiohead dropped an album that seems to say “the album is dead”, The Low Anthem have fired a shot right back saying “It’s alive….ALIVE!!!” The opening track sets the stage for the band to follow the familiar territory they covered in Darwin, but it is merely the hook for previous fans to bring them into a collection of songs that are so much more mature, both musically and lyrically, than those found on Darwin that it is hard to comprehend that this is the same band. Smart Flesh, stylistically, is as much all over the map as it is grounded in what can best be described as a “Low Anthem sound”. With songs that sonically pay tribute to/emulate the likes of Vic Chesnutt (“Matter of Time” ) and Leonard Cohen (“Burn”,) as much as they do The Band, The Low Anthem are mining the same weird folk traditions that groups like Blitzen Trapper are here. And just like that band the results end up completely unique, engaging, and strangely new while maintaining a familiarity that is nothing short of comforting to even the casual listener. This grounding in the past is part of what makes Smart Flesh such a success but the stars of the album are really threefold: The writing, the pacing, and the recording.
Consider the following lyric from “Apothecary Love”:
First she shot me with whiskey then chased me with gin
But swore I was the cure for the shape she was in
Even taken out of context from the song, that’s some heavy stuff right there, and is a perfect of example of why this album succeeds on each and every one of its 11 tracks. The band is crafting universal ideas of love, loneliness, confusion and anger into a glorious statement on all of these things at once and does so with a consistency that is somewhat jaw dropping. From the intensely personal “Burn” or “Apothecary Love”, to not one but TWO songs about 911 and its aftermath (the possibly misdirected rallying cry of “Boeing 737” and ““Hey All you Hippies” which can only be interpreted as the bands feelings on the resulting Patriot Act, if not the resulting state of America in general) Smart Flesh navigates it’s charted course expertly and earnestly while never coming off as overbearing or anything less than completely honest and sincere. That’s a hard thing to do and still manage to entertain, but that’s only part of what makes the album not only entertaining, but infinitely listenable.
When was the last time you heard an album and felt, not that it was just a collection of the newest songs by an artist, but that the work as a whole was a journey you went on, rather than something you cherry picked your favorite moments from? What I’m talking about is something deeper than just some unifying concept. I’m talking about an album whose songs quite simply can’t exist without the others around it. I’m talking about an album that makes sense from start to finish. An album that demands you listen to the whole thing every time you drop the needle on it. Albums like Radiohead’s OK Computer, or The Drive By Truckers Southern Rock Opera. These are the first two that come to mind, and to be honest I’m having a hard time thinking of anything else in the past decade or so. Why is that? Are bands just not making records like this? Moving further down this path, think hard about the last time you heard an album that had actual sides? Can you? Part of the genius of Smart Flesh is that it’s meant to be consumed in two parts. As the clarinets of “Wire”, the instrumental track that divides this album, wrap around each other in the kind of sad, slowly burning dirge, you won’t find yourself reaching for the “skip” button. Instead you’ll find yourself paying attention and actually reflecting on the last five songs you just heard. It’s an intermission that demands respect in its own right, as much as it acts as a perfect complement to everything that came before and will come after. This stuff doesn’t happen by accident folks. This is planning. This is real intelligence at work here and proof that if you do the hard work, the planning, the thinking…it pays off.
The last thing I’ll say about Smart Flesh, because I feel I’m starting to merely gush here, is something that is often taken for granted, and is again expertly executed by The Low Anthem…the actual recording. Smart Flesh was recorded for the most part in an abandoned spaghetti factory in Rhode Island (read Billboard’s article about the process here) and even though the band is considered to be “Lo-Fi”, whatever that actually means, I can’t think of better recording that I’ve heard in the past five years. Whatever sound they coaxed out of their space hits the sweet spot in my brain, and there is a warmth and a life to these recordings that has just simply been absent from my stereo for far too long. Is this what ultimately sells me on the album? It goes a long way, but in the end it’s the whole damn package that The Low Anthem have put forth here. For me this is an exciting record. It’s a record that says that rather than just slapping the last 11 songs you've written together on a piece of plastic, someone is actually thinking about what they are doing, considering their product, and doing what it takes to make it the best they possibly can. The Low Anthem has proved that even though it would seem to be something of a lost art, making a tight, intelligent and cohesive group of songs can still be done and in doing so they have provided us with something that is more of a gift than a record. For that we should all say “Thank you” and support the band as much as we can this time around because even though The Low Anthem may never achieve these heights again (I’m looking squarely at you Midlake), Smart Flesh is here now and its ready to pay you back far more than you could ever put into it.
Standout Tracks: All of them. Every single song on this album is beyond excellent.