“One second you’re dozing off in the passenger seat on the way to a gig, and the next, there’s fire and hell flames and black smoke and your face is bleeding and you can’t see, and you can’t process information, and you think it’s all over.” Jeff Prystowsky is describing one of the scariest moments in his life, as The Low Anthem’s tour van crashed and subsequently wiped out Prystowsky for several weeks, as well as wrecking loads of their gear and instruments in the process.
However, the accident also acted as an inadvertent impetus for their latest record whilst Prystowsky was in recovery: a John Cage-influenced concept record. 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. Recalling the more progressive moments of artists such as Sufjan Stevens and Lambchop, it’s a record of a deep richness, loaded with extreme subtleties and with a space and delicacy counter to the group’s previous dense and complex album.
The album feels like a new palette for the group and comes at the end of a period of profound change and evolution. Not only did the van crash cancel their tour (after just four dates) but, combined with some record company troubles, it led to the album they were due to tour all but disappearing. Eyeland was the group’s deeply experimental 2016 album, one that was their first in several years and one that was also a direct response to a world in which they had found themselves but didn’t really want to be.
Prystowsky formed the band with Ben Knox Miller 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 still enamoured with music itself and holed down here for years experimenting and learning to record and produce what would become Eyeland but they were no longer the group that they had once been. “It’s like eating stale bread,” Prystowsky says. “Fresh bread is better. You want to cook with fresh ingredients and eat it while it’s still warm. If you wait too long, the moment is gone. So you reheat it but with each reheating, a little bit is lost…until it can’t be reheated anymore.”
The pair are involved with the running of The Columbus Theatre, they help book and promote shows and are in attendance for every new production, burrowing themselves at a grassroots level into their community. It has become an important place for them in terms of 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.”
Five years on since moving back to Providence, building a recording studio then recording a deeply experimental, stylistic u-turn of a record in Eyeland before having to ditch the whole thing after a near miss accident, the band are now finally 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 wrote on stripped down equipment (given that all the band’s usual stuff had been destroyed or damaged in the crash) and the end result was 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.”
Knox Miller wrote the song cycle whilst Prystowsky was recovering from a concussion and it became a part of him in the process. A project to immerse himself into completely, mirroring the tale of the salt doll but also filling the void left by the absence of his usual creative partner (who soon returned to good health to help finish the record.) “I ate it, I slept it” Ben says of the process.
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.
Filipina American songwriter Haley Heynderickx opens.