Smart Flesh, The Low Anthem’s fourth album, is very good, but, as it progresses, one gets the impression that it could be much better. The strengths of the band are apparent from the onset. Singer Ben Knox Miller has a quiet storm of a voice, fixing your gaze to his words whenever they are emitted from his lips. At times, his tone resembles that of James Taylor, at others Cat Stevens and Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Early. The frailty in his voice is flexible to the words he speaks. He sounds like Bob Dylan in “Boeing 737” and “Matter of Time” sounds like what would happen if Heath Ledger’s Joker wrote a tender love song. His soft voice brings attention to his lyrics, which can be entertaining through either depreciating quips (“First she shot me with whisky then chased me with gin”) or well-founded rhetorical portraits, as in the album highlight, “Burn.”
However, Miller’s vocal performance is just about all that’s interesting about Smart Flesh. With the exception of the presence of clarinets in songs like “Ghost Warrior Blues” and “Wire,” the album deals into the stereotypical folksy sound: acoustic guitars that just keep strumming, organs that play sweeping chords and banjo that’s only there to give the illusion of authenticity. I cannot name a time when the music is anything less than solid, but Miller’s humor and candor deserve a much better setting than one that just strives for average. The result isn’t necessarily an album that sounds bad, but the lack of musical ambition drags down songs that don’t have such a pronounced lyrical presence like “Hey, All You Hippies!”
So Smart Flesh is a success, but it’s too unnecessarily top-heavy. Mediocre instrumentation does not make for a bad album, but the anonymity of the arrangements can make one nod off in boredom and miss the greater skill that Miller observes. For however good his voice is, it’s very quiet and thus demanding of your full attention. The Low Anthem need to learn that it is possible for folk to be original and, though Smart Flesh is an admirable release, more like it will start to sound like wasted talent.