Providence, Rhode Island trio The Low Anthem spent last year’s Newport Folk Festival as volunteers collecting recycling. When not picking up empty cans and cartons they were busy thrusting copies of this album into the palms of interested punters.
Fast forward to 2009 and their diligence has paid off, with a great set at the festival. It only goes to show that hard work will take you places – though having an album as great as this must surely be an added help. Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is already riding high in most mid-year polls; when Old Father Time calls an end to 2009 it’s likely it’ll retain its place. If not, then it’s certainly a shoo-in for Best Album Title of the year, at least.
The name sums up the album in a nutshell; a collection that appears to thematically contradict itself – transcendent moments followed by earthbound stomping. Principle songwriter Ben Knox Miller says, “This record’s about you and me, sitting on top of the foodchain with too much time to think”.
Opener Charlie Darwin is a gorgeous, graceful, track whose vocal harmonies wouldn’t be out of place on a Fleet Foxes album. It stands alone as one of the best tracks of the year with its ability to send a chill down the spine with every listen. It’s a great opener to what is a powerful and enjoyable collection of songs.
The album was recorded in an empty cabin during the winter and at times sounds like an attempt to capture the essence belonging to the highlights of great American songwriting; the evolution of which is plain to see. There are hints of Basement Tapes-era Bob Dylan in the raucous The Horizon Is A Beltway and the haunting Ticket Taker is the best song Leonard Cohen didn’t write (right down to a female protagonist called Marianne). If that’s not enough there’s also a Tom Waits cover with lyrics from Jack Kerouac and there are also contemporary influences heard in the mix from the likes of Iron And Wine to The Black Keys and Kings Of Leon.
Given this plethora of influences some may think that the album might not be able to stand alone on its own merits, or that The Low Anthem’s sound is mostly derivative. Thankfully this is not the case, for the album hangs together well and each song has an individual personality. When it all comes together it forms a remarkable collection of quietly assured songs; tracks such as To Ohio or (Don’t) Tremble leave an imprint long after the last notes have drifted away.
Like Bon Iver‘s For Emma, Forever Ago this is a simple album which holds many rewarding and beautiful pleasures. Darwin’s evolutionary theories are based on the survival of the fittest, and it’s true that this album is surely fit not only to survive but to be one of 2009’s most enduring titles.