A sign broadcasting this word hung on the studio wall while Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky, and Jocie Adams, the three members of The Low Anthem, recorded Oh My God, Charlie Darwin. A Hebrew expression taken from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the word literally means “thou mayest.” The translation implies that there is some choice involved in whatever matter is at hand: thou may or thou may not. The Low Anthem’s speedy evolution from a local Providence, Rhode Island band with a grassroots attitude to international critical darlings hints that a lot of people have collectively decided The Low Anthem may.
May what? Apparently, go on to be the face of quasi-Americana, sorta folksy, roadtripping, twenty-seven instruments deep, do-it-yourself roots rock. Clearly, it’s difficult to put an precise label on what The Low Anthem does. Is the music a textbook example of antediluvian art, or is it evidence of a reimagined take on salt of the earth lore?
Even the band struggles with where its sound fits into today’s musical landscape. In an interview with The Providence Journal, Miller explains, “I love the word ‘Americana,’ but I think a lot of people understand it differently than I do. When I think of Americana, I think of Elvis and old stuff that you find at antiques stores — the icons of the American culture. I don’t associate it with pretty music or folk music, which I think a lot of people do… Neil Young is Americana; Elvis is Americana; Tom Waits is Americana. It’s a very formless genre as far as I’m concerned.”
In addition to influences such as great American songwriters, literature, and pastimes (Miller and Prystowsky share a love of baseball), the band drew heavily from Social Darwinism while working on OMG,CD. Along with “Timshel!” posted above the studio’s control booth, the trio always kept a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species close at hand.
Lyrically, OMG,CD can get a little dense, but Miller explains the thematic concept: it’s centered on “Darwinism driving the evolution of values, and not being grounded in a set of absolute values. I became obsessed by this idea of Darwinism for a while…the idea that the powerful crushes the weak and that these are the values that live on. And while species are evolving, our morals and ethical codes are evolving, too, depending on which [idea] has legs…”
The lyrics suggest that the surviving fabric of our American lives is the one that’s been woven by the strongest hands. No wonder that “Americana” label is so slippery. In “Charlie Darwin,” Miller muses against dreamy harmonies: “And who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin? / The lords of war just profit from decay / And trade their children’s promise for the jingle / The way we trade our hard earned time for pay.” So, whose standards are we really following? Who decides what America’s really all about?
“Don’t Tremble” extends a message of hope despite the confusing, messy, and often unlit path we walk from birth ‘til death. Lyrics such as “If your pilot light should die / Do not quake and do not bark / You will find the spark” connote optimism in the face of nihilism, all set against a fragile guitar strum and a forest of chirping birds.
After Steinbeck completed East of Eden, he stated: “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this." In a way, the same can be said for The Low Anthem ‘s latest and seemingly seminal offering combined with its “everything old is new again” sound. But, don’t expect the trio to stop right where it is, despite the sweet spot. As Miller says, they are “always trying to be in the state of discovery, rather than self-imitation.”
And that’s the kind of self-propelled evolution that would make Charlie Darwin very proud. Survival of the fittest, indeed.
He (Ben Knox Miller) said it: “Listening to the record (OMG,CD) is akin to taking shelter during a lightning storm among nostalgic remnants in a water-damaged church, who’s new tenants – rats, owls, stray dogs and snakes – comprise a burgeoning, cacophonous, dog-eat-dog ecosystem.”