With 2009’s Oh My God, Charlie Darwin and follow up Smart Flesh two years later, Rhode Island four piece The Low Anthem established themselves as one of the classiest, most listenable Americana acts around. A deft combination of folk, country and gospel influences that combined the warmth of traditional instruments with innovative recording techniques (notably, Smart Flesh was recorded in a vacant pasta sauce factory, which gave the album its echoing sense of space) they showed above all they are first rate songwriters; the gorgeous, soaring melodies of songs like Oh My God, Charlie Darwin’s title track and To Ohio losing nothing in comparison with more lauded contemporaries like Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver.
What a pity then that after a five year wait, The Low Anthem’s new album Eyeland seems to wilfully sacrifice many of those strengths. Since Smart Flesh, the band have immersed themselves in the creation of their own Eyeland Studios, developing Providence, Rhode Island’s once obsolete Columbus Theatre into an innovative and in-demand recording space and live concert venue. This venture has apparently acted as a focal point for their musical development, which takes the quartet into far more experimental territory than ever before.
It’s clear from the start that this is a radical change of direction for The Low Anthem. While their previous two albums kicked off with instantly accessible, tuneful compositions (on Smart Flesh, a cover of George Carter’s Ghost Woman Blues), In Eyeland reduces front man Ben Miller to a barely audible whisper above a shimmer of ambient bird noise and gently burbling keyboards. Her Little Cosmos, with its distant, fractured vocal, industrial noise and occasional jagged shards of synth, continues in a similar vein. There are similarities with post-OK Computer Radiohead; meticulously textured but often frustratingly difficult to engage with. And the band’s trademark, gorgeous layered harmonies are nowhere to be seen.
Pepsi Moon, less frenetic and with more of a contemplative, organic feel, is better, with some nice subtle brass and gently flickering acoustic guitar, although it still lacks the melodic clarity of The Low Anthem’s best work. It’s only when we get to the mid-point of Eyeland that things belatedly go up a gear with the wistful, sparse loveliness of Behind The Airport Mirror, which allows Miller’s honeyed voice to emerge from the background and take centre stage for the first time. The thoughtful, elegant In The Air Hockey Fire is another step in the right direction, but it’s not long before chaos returns with wzgddrmtnwrdz (not a typo!) which is as bewilderingly incomprehensible as its title suggests, with a bizarre whistled rendition of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine the only element recognisable as music.
There’s a brief recovery with the stately piano and yearning vocal of Ghost Killer, which tantalisingly harks back to the Low Anthem’s earlier triumphs, but Eyeland then closes disappointingly with the underwhelming sub-Brian Eno minimalist meandering of The Circular Ruins In Euphio.
Intended as a concept album based on Miller’s short story about a group of children who experience a traumatic break from innocence when an air hockey table catches fire and burns down one of their houses, other than on the aforementioned In The Air Hockey Fire this narrative rarely takes hold. Instead what we have is a confusing, confused and self-indulgent record that frequently sags under its own ambition, with the fleeting moments of beauty offering a chastening reminder that sometimes it’s better to simply stick to what you’re good at.