From its hand silkscreened cover art to its meticulously crafted songs, The Low Anthem offers work meant to be held, savored, contemplated, and occasionally stomped along to. The Providence, RI, trio’s Nonesuch debut offers a distinctly human touch in an era of instant uploading and ephemeral expression. The mood of Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is melancholic from the start—quiet, intimate, full of longing, and often hauntingly beautiful. In its lyrics, a dog-eat-dog society is nearing collapse and relationships are bruised, broken, or irretrievably lost. Yet in their tenor there is a pencil shaving of hope.
The Low Anthem combines folk and blues arrangements with the elegance of chamber music and the fervor of gospel. Much of Oh My God is hushed and hymn-like, but the trio throws a clamorous curve with raw, stomp-and-holler tracks like “The Horizon Is a Beltway” and its version of “Home I’ll Never Be,” a Jack Kerouac song passed via Tom Waits. Members Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky, and Jocie Adams—all students of classical composition—bring a wide range of individual interests to the band. Prystowsky is a scholar of baseball, jazz, and American history. Adams, a classical composer and technical wizard, spent summers working an infrared spectrometer at NASA. And Miller, principle songwriter, painter, and general ruminator, can indeed expound upon the theories of Charles Darwin. They have a formidable work ethic, along with the ability to laugh at their maniacal intensity.
On stage and in its recordings, the trio uses a variety of unusual instrumentation—by its own count, the band mates took turns playing 27 different instruments on Oh My God—that gives its songs, at times, an otherworldly quality. For example, Miller and Prystowsky refurbished a World War I pump organ that had been dragged by chaplains into the battlefield and is now part of The Low Anthem’s arsenal of instruments. Adams plays the crotales, a rack of bronze, cymbal-like discs often used with mallets as a percussion instrument. Adams, however, wields a bow to elicit feedback-like sounds. Some critics have called The Low Anthem’s sound Americana, but what the group has really done is to conjure a varied and elusive sound of its own.