Having transitioned from tradition-steeped Americana to prog-rock-inspired fare with the release of Eyeland in mid-2016, the Low Anthem were on their way to a show later that year when their instruments and gear were destroyed in a tour-van crash. The accident also injured some band- and crewmembers, though one of the group's founders, Ben Knox Miller, escaped without serious injury. In the 16 days that followed, Miller used instruments from his bedroom -- including a piano, an acoustic guitar, and an 8-track tape machine from the '90s -- to demo a first version of what would become the Low Anthem's fifth studio album, The Salt Doll Went to Measure the Depth of the Sea. A final version was constructed after co-founding member Jeffrey Prystowsky recovered from his injuries. It's a hushed, poignant, not-so-subtly eerie work that's nearly as much an electronic album as a folk one, though its sound lies somewhere in the expanses in between. Fans shouldn't tune in expecting their earlier albums' instrumentalism but rather for immersion -- in a concept, in a mood, and in contemplation. Inspired by a Buddhist fable about a doll made of salt, it makes frequent reference to the doll who, to better understand the ocean, sticks her toe in the water. There are multiple versions of the story, but essentially, she keeps losing more and more of herself into the ocean until she realizes, as she disappears, that they are one and the same. The Salt Doll is a concept album in every sense, exploring the themes of rebirth, repetition, and water in lyrics and in music, using the musical motif of a spinning vinyl record throughout the track list to haunting effect. It's first featured prominently in the third track, "Give My Body Back," which has the sound of a record needle stuck in an inner groove, skipping in rhythm with the revolutions. Elsewhere, as on the glitchy "Cy Twombly by Campfire," percussion and other minimal samples are used similarly. All the while, Miller's voice, which those familiar with his earlier work know is capable of explosiveness and bluesy grit, is restrained, sticking to a soft, Sufjan Stevens-like falsetto and whispery middle range. The Low Anthem have explored this minimalist, moving stylistic space before, but never so relentlessly and affectingly. Almost completely stripped of virtuosity, The Salt Doll may alienate certain traditional roots fans but has the potential to bewitch musers and wanderers.
AllMusic Review by Marcy Donelson