Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is a modern album constructed completely out of the dust and memories of the past. The tuneful simplicity of American folk pioneers. The humble, hymnal harmonies of white spirituals. The journey as a metaphor. Hushed tones. Undefined sadness. The curious title is not evidence of a twee sensibility, but a reference to the band’s noble project. What the Low Anthem want is to make an album of modern, secular spirituals, and through quiet, plucked songs, they approach success. The synthesis of all-that-has-come-before with things-now is not quite complete, however.
The Low Anthem are hamstrung by two things. The first is the fact that they are, by their own admission uninterested in modern music. The consequence of this is that they inhabit some decidedly creaky retro headspace in which things that sound second-hand and hackneyed to most listeners are in fact the acceptable and vital bricks and mortar of songwriting craft. Railroads, state names and wide horizons don’t have the literary resonance they once had. And that’s a real difficulty with The Low Anthem. In the most earnest and well-intentioned way, they are just doing something old again.
The second thing marring The Low Anthem is their penchant to descend into bar-room blues romps about 25% of the time. It really is unfortunate, because for all their secondarity, some of the songs on Oh My God, Charlie Darwin are legitimately beautiful things. Hints of Bright Eyes are perceptible on ‘Ticket Taker’, an achingly sad love song delivered in a whisper. The fragile, bassy drone which Jocie Adams’ multi-instrumental versatility provides throughout the album helps to take the edges off some of the more Americana tracks. But the quiet beauty of The Low Anthem is destroyed by the foot-stompin’ blues, which manages to break the illusion and remind you that the whispered folk is just as hackneyed in its own way.