“Lowborn men are but a breath, the highborn are but a lie; if weighed on a balance, they are nothing; together they are only a breath” -Psalm 62.9
One interpretation of the above passage is that a person is not measured by the stature of their birth-a fact that is ultimately meaningless in the face of Almighty- but by the impact they leave on others around them. They are measured not by their wealth, but by their community and their faith. This is as good a time as any to say that the above passage is the source of the title of the final album from Anberlin, a lowborn band from an Orlando, Florida suburb which improbably conquered the alternative rock world and went on to release seven albums. In a way it perfectly describes Anberlin’s relationship with the music scene, and the incredible nature of their lasting impact. There were bands that were born higher, and imploded through infighting and lies; bands that were born lower and barely registered as even a whisper in the era of downloaded music. But Anberlin defied the odds and became more than a mere breath. They withstood the test of time and manufactured a career with longevity that will carry long past the end of their run.
Full disclosure: Anberlin is my favorite band. They have been my favorite band since I was in eighth grade. Because of this there is an inherent bias in whatever I have to say in this review. The review as an art form is, and always be, an incredibly subjective field, however, so to expect me or anyone else who reviews this album to take a completely independent, outsider listen and judge it is an asinine request. Quite simply, the reviewer’s relationship with the band and the band’s music is incredibly important to accurately assessing the importance or value of a particular release.
With that well and completely out of the way, I will then go on to say that Lowborn is perhaps the most crucial music release of my life- being that it is the final album from my favorite band- and I am incredibly relieved to inform you, valued reader, that not only does Lowborn more than live up to the lofty expectations placed on it by being the final installment of the band’s career. It earns its place in the band’s annals by being an impactful, experimental, and artful masterpiece.
Before delving into a breakdown of the specific elements of certain songs, I feel it is important to look at Lowborn in terms of the overarching narrative themes present. During the Cities touring cycle, vocalist Stephen Christian was fond of saying that Anberlin’s first three records were about man’s different struggles. “Blueprints for the Black Market was about Man vs. World, Never Take Friendship Personal is about Man vs. Man, and Cities is about Man vs. Self,” he used to say. Lowborn, using this same format, would then have to be about Man vs. Finality.
Many of the songs on the album seem uniquely interested in quantifying the idea of the end- a thread which seems quite fitting in context. The first way in which the aforementioned Christian, the primary lyricist for the band, connects back to this overarching motif is by tracing the impact of one’s mortality. The most obvious example comes in “Hearing Voices,” in which Christian notes one’s tendency to be apprehensive, yet curious, in the face of death. “Everyone wants to see heaven / but no one wants to say goodbye / everyone wants to see heaven / but no one wants to die,” he belts in the song’s pre-chorus. Often times, they spit in the face of death and destruction, such as on the explosive intro “We Are Destroyer,” in which Christian croons, “No one can help us now / it’s us against the tide / and will be until we die.”
In the above line, he seems eager to face the challenge, despite noting later on how quick Earthly life passes by (“It’s just a matter of minutes/ Just a matter of time/ We could lose it all.”) Perhaps the track with the most cynicism, though, is “Velvet Covered Brick,” in which Christian notes, “Death comes to us all too quick / Here’s your chance to love, but I heard you scream / We’re heading nowhere.” In “Brick,” he seems to take special note of the other party’s nihilistic worldview, and that worldview seems to corrupt and distort his own vision. It’s fairly incredible that such a brief album can contain such a elaborate dissection of the implications of man’s mortality, but leave it to Anberlin to accomplish such a task in a ten song rock album.
The other way that the band seems to connect Lowborn to this theme of Man vs. Finality is by tracking and considering their own legacy as a band. Normally, when a band breaks up, why get a letter thanking the fans for their support. With Anberlin, fans were given the letter in the form of an album- so several of the songs take the form of explaining the reason’s for the demise of the band to the fans. For example, Christian seems to be considering what comes next for himself and the other members of the band when he sings on “Atonement,” “I’ve loved where I’ve been/ But my heart’s where I’m going.” However, the band is clearly anxious that if they continue, they will fall victim to a growing indifference from fans, as he notes later in that same song, “Don’t want to be here, don’t want to be here without you.” It is easy to track, with the use of the album’s lyrics, the band’s coming to terms with their own finality. In “Losing It All,” we can see Christian at peace with the end of the band’s run, as long as the band’s fans continue to care: “It’s not losing it all, if we have each other / In the end it’s all, in the end it’s all that matters.”
Perhaps just as important as the thematic content of the record, if not more so, is the structure and quality of the songwriting. In this regard, Anberlin left nothing on the table. Though there isn’t much empirical evidence to compare it to, it appears knowing you have one album left can bring out two different responses: either you get anxious and play it safe, or you throw caution to the wind and release your most eclectic, diverse mix of songs. Luckily, Anberlin opted for the latter. Their capacity for creative expression was aided by the unconventional style in which the album was record. Anberlin worked with three different producers on the record: Matt Goldman worked on the drums with Nate Young, guitars and bass were recorded with Aaron Marsh, and Christian worked with Aaron Sprinkle (who worked on the band’s first three records, as well as the critically-acclaimed 2012 album Vital) to transform his lyrics into vocals.
Though the piece-meal nature of the recording process could have hampered the cohesiveness, the record feels like a unified whole instead of an assortment of puzzle pieces, a credit to the band’s unified vision. Tracks like the riotous, Nine Inch Nails-inspired industrial rager “Dissenter” shouldn’t be able to flow effortlessly into the poly-rhythm drum and acoustic-led “Losing It All,” yet the transition is seamless.
Perhaps a side-effect of taking note of your own legacy is that you’re no longer afraid of letting your own influences show. Lead single “Stranger Ways,” is a meandering, synth-heavy power-pop ballad which draws easy comparisons to New Order and Morrisey (the title of the track was actually drawn from a Morrissey song name generator). Anberlin has always been a fan of the 80s New Wave movement, but often times these influences would find their way onto B-sides, instead of album tracks. Here, the influence is front and center, interwoven with the band’s own style so easily it is astonishing.
Noteworthy individual instrumental performances are plentiful on Lowborn, but most remarkable is the continued domination by drummer Nate Young. Young has proven time and again through the band’s career that he is one of the most talented in the alternative rock scene, and Lowborn is no different in that regard. Whether he is pulverizing an understated snare roll in the pre-chorus to the lead track “We Are Destroyer,” or laying down the hip-hop influenced and double bass pedal-utilizing grooving beat in “Birds of Prey,” he provides a sturdy background and a looming presence to every track, even if his influence isn’t immediately in-your-face.
There are certainly comparisons to be made between some of the songs on Lowborn and the band’s earlier records. “Hearing Voices” explodes with the same intensity and balladry as “Modern Age” from Vital, while “Velvet Covered Brick,” with it’s near-unrelenting tempo, seems to be reminiscent of “Someone Anyone.” No track seems quite as nostalgic as “Atonement,” however, as the track works sort of as a “The Unwinding Cable Car, Pt. II” sonically. It also features references to the band’s earlier work, including their early skeleton key logo (“I’ve touched hands with those who touched me / Seen the marks of skeleton keys”).
Then there is “Armageddon,” this album’s slow-burn version of Cities’ “Reclusion.” It’s a brooding, introspective fire-and-brimstone sermon of a track, interlaced with some dubstep-influenced wubs and subtly impressive airy guitar work. It sounds like nothing else in the band’s career, in the best way possible, and is an easy standout on Lowborn.
For an album that seems intent on questioning the band’s legacy and place within the pantheon of important and influential alternative rock bands, Lowborn does an admirable job in staking Anberlin’s claim. In the final words Christian will ever sing as a member of Anberlin, he summarizes why the band had to step away, with the gorgeous and haunting closing lines of “Harbinger”- “We’ll live forever, forever / I don’t wanna go now, but I’ve got to / for you to remember me / in this light.”
I have a hard time dictating an ending to this review that will suit the album better than those prophetic words above, so I will just say this: throughout their seven albums, Anberlin has proven themselves to be a band whose music will live on forever. Long Live Anberlin.