There is a folk tale, or fable: a doll made of salt reaches the seashore after making a long journey. She sees the expanse of water and wants to know what it is. The sea beckons her to step into it; that way she will discover what the sea is. The salt doll steps into the sea and begins to dissolve in the water. The sea urges her to go deeper into it; that way she will discover what the sea is. The salt doll goes further and eventually she is entirely dissolved. Thus she discovers that she and the sea are one and the same, and as she learns what the sea is she learns something fundamental about herself.
This tale serves as a starting point for The Low Anthem’s fifth album, a concept work that riffs on the salt doll story. We might therefore expect it to be an album about self-discovery, unity and spirituality, and in a way it is. It bears remembering that shortly after the release of their last album, Eyeland, the band were involved in a serious car accident: in the aftermath of that sort of trauma, a story like that of the salt doll and the sea can act as a starting point for healing self-reflection.
And it sounds as though they have used it to rebuild themselves from the ground up. This is more pared down than most of their previous work; acoustic guitars, violin and piano rub up against just enough electronic sounds. The Low Anthem still sound like a folk band, but they are now a more contemporary one. Some of the percussion parts were apparently tapped out on vinyl records: that does seem horribly pretentious but it turns out to be oddly effective, and it’s such a simple and timeless idea that you wonder why folk music hasn’t already embraced this particular form of turntablism.
In The Low Anthem’s retelling of the story, the salt doll goes into the sea in a diving bell. You can see it on the album’s front cover and it’s referenced in a couple of the tracks. Drowsy Dowsing Dolls fades out to those lovely pulsing sounds that call to mind submarines descending in old movies; and the closing track, Final Transmission From the Diving Umbrella, which strongly recalls Grandaddy’s songs of warped human-computer interaction, has the refrain “Release the diving bell”.
But the salt doll is just one character in an ensemble piece that draws on many maritime myths and histories. “Fill the fatty walls with arrows” is the call to arms of The Krill Whistle Their Fight Song, a kind of inverted Moby Dick. And Gondwanaland seems to be narrated by fossils embossed on the seabed. Give My Body Back might be the most straightforward folk ballad, but its two-minute duration deals with history, mortality and the sheer immensity of the ocean; its “mountains higher than any peak you’ve ever seen up upon dry land”. The salt doll might be falling through space and time here, but so are we all.
The Salt Doll Went To Measure The Depth Of The Sea is something of a reinvention for The Low Anthem. Evidently it has acted as an opportunity for them to regroup after the car accident – and after Eyeland, a muddled album that suggested a loss of direction. In contrast, this is the most consistent album to date by a band whose flashes of brilliance hitherto seemed often dissolved in their encumbering desire to set down a surfeit of ideas on each record. Here, their creative energies are reconciled just as the salt doll is reconciled with the sea.