Photo: Alessia Arregui
The Low Anthem have announced their new LP 'The Salt Doll Went To Measure The Depth Of The Sea'.
Released on February 23rd, this is a beautiful, elegiac and largely acoustic – though peppered with subtle yet immersive electronics and humming ambience – album of twelve tracks that barely stretch past the two-minute mark. The percussive textures were etched into continuous center grooves of dollar bin vinyl with needles and sand paper, while Ben Knox Miller’s horn playing haunts the songs and Florence Wallis brought in spacious strings. Recalling the more progressive moments of artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Lambchop, it’s a record of a deep richness, with extreme subtleties and a space and delicacy counter to the group’s previous dense and complex album.
Ben Knox Miller and Jeff Prystowsky formed The Low Anthem in 2006, after meeting at their college radio station. They pursued an authentic but timeless sound, and after the huge success of their 2007 debut album, What The Crow Brings, the band found themselves signed to Nonesuch and Bella Union for their even more successful follow-up, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin. They toured the world and were reluctantly lumped in with the so-called "folk revival". However, night-after-night of performing their early material was not ultimately where they wanted to land. “The moment was losing its mystery. We were scared of becoming robots,” the band said after six years of reflection.
They returned to their hometown of Providence, Rhode Island back in 2012 and instead poured their energy into their local community by restoring a vaudeville-era theatre and building their own recording studio within. The band were inescapably enamored with music itself and holed down here for years experimenting and learning to record and produce what would become Eyeland. During this process, the band evolved from their previous members, including Jocie Adams, to include new members, Florence Wallis and Bryan Minto.
The four are involved with the running of The Columbus Theatre, they help book, promote and run shows, burrowing themselves in at a grassroots level into their community. It has become an inspirational, creative space. “It’s a magical place with a long history,” Prystowsky says. “I like to call it a palace of music. You’re walking into a theatre from almost a hundred years ago, still intact, built for the acoustics of music, pre-the invention of the PA. It’s so unlike anything in the 21st century that it ignites your creative muscles to work. You immediately lose your frame of reference, in a good way.”
Having built a recording studio and recorded a deeply experimental, stylistic u-turn of a record in Eyeland, they released it in 2016, but their plans were disrupted due to a catastrophic van crash in their first week of touring. Not only did they have to cancel the tour, but, combined with some record company troubles, it led to the album all but disappearing. Eyeland was their first in several years and was also a direct response to a world in which they had found themselves but didn’t really want to be. After the crash, their gear and instruments broken, they found a moment in which they could discover what a world they would want to be in might look like.
The Low Anthem are now into a groove of their own, under their own terms. They are settled and have found themselves again both in terms of a sense of place as well as musically. This feeling of comfort, confidence and newfound identity shines through on The Salt Doll Went To Measure The Depth Of The Sea, an album that was triggered when Knox Miller was reading John Cage’s biography Where The Heart Beats, by Kay Larsen. He soon became transfixed by the salt doll fable he came across. The salt doll fable basically tells the story of a doll that wants to know itself, and what it’s made of. A teacher tells it, “salt comes from the ocean,” so it goes to the sea. When the doll puts its toe in, it knows something, but loses its toe. Then it puts its foot in, knows even more but loses its foot...and so on, until it’s completely dissolved, never to return to the shore.
This fable soon blossomed into a full album that Knox Miller immersed himself in completely, written on stripped down equipment (given that all the band’s usual gear had been destroyed or damaged in the crash). The end result is an album that, according to Prystowsky: “Is a concept album with a story arc weaving through the songs like a constellation. It’s an underwater circular journey to the bottom of the sea following the salt doll who, attempting to measure the sea (and thus, know its true origins), in the end, becomes part of it. Along the way this non-human, conscious chemical compound, encounters all kinds of fantastical oceanic things.”
It finds the Low Anthem of 2017 a vastly different band from the one that emerged 10 years ago with their debut. One that has experienced more ups and downs that many would manage in an entire career but also one that now feels settled in their skin and only interested in venturing toward the horizon instead of re-treading old ground.