by Andrew Karpan (@donniedelillo)
A guy I know listens to the band Low; the guy’s preemptively middle-aged, a bad haircut and bad education kind of guy (normie flat-top and Yale, respectively). At some point in his life, he fronted one of those Connecticut emo bands that play in their parent’s basements, which happen to have a larger seating capacity than the Bowery Ballroom. At some point in his life, he applied himself to a comb and gave up on the prospect of a life that might mean something to him. He appreciates the production work of Steve Albini, whose work he listens to with large expensive headphones that recall sound equipment from the late ‘80s because of all that quiet low-register murmuring that Albini gathers like dust bits in a dust collection make life seem as foggy and ambient as this man’s life, a delicate and barely discernable hum amid a forest of little noises whose particles reward the investigation of the dude’s advanced audio equipment.
I mention this because the new album from Low opens with a slow whack, a cascading riff of drum pads that target the ear with a sound that’s something between the noise of a waterfall and Mr. Plow taking a large dump on your listening equipment. When Alan Sparhawk’s vocals simmer in, they feel liturgical, an unsourced echo inside a cathedral. Slowly shaken maracas and the feeling of sitting on an island adrift in lava occur to me. The press release advertises this element of Low’s twelfth record, Double Negative, as “pure bedlam.”
It is one of the best albums of the band’s career: their most musically adventurous, a vivid and living sonic sculpture of songs that sequence into and out of each other, that enter and leave like waves beating the sides of a boat in a storm. Something frozen holds these songs together, an icy chill that sits underneath a song like “Fly,” a tune that carries Mimi Parker’s harmonic line from the song before and melds it into a low register of percussive beats that Parker then sings over. Each added sound—the muted twang of studio processed guitars, the floating and twinkling keys of an ambient piano—has the effect of a small stone thrown into a reflecting pool. This effect lasts some minutes until the song’s own coda crashes into it, mourning the flight of the song’s subject from the room through silence punctuated by moving bleeps and thudding minor notes that come off as far less corny than that sounds and more like the final sighs of life leaving a body.
Much of these bleeps come from the band’s work with BJ Burton, who the band also worked with on their last record, Ones and Sixes. On that record, Burton added a kind of synth-pop crunch to the band’s regular vocabulary, which cast their dark folk songs into wince-inducing bright light. In that press release, the band describes their decision to work with Burton as driven by a desire to see exactly how “a hip-hop guy” could affect the sound of the quarter-century old band. There is some truth in this. While Sub Pop advertises Burton as a man who has worked with Bon Iver and Bon Iver-lite singers (James Blake, Tallest Man On Earth), the most interesting production of his career so far had been the beats he provided the sophomore effort of Minneapolis-based rapper Lizzo. Those beats were soaring highways of crisp snow that helped the rapper jolt between high camp and heart-sleeve sincerity, to carry the lines “I swear there should be support groups for men without Lizzo” and “I will never be the person that you want” in the same breath.
On Double Negative, Burton carries the idea of Low as indie electronic pioneers—a review of one of the album’s early singles cites the influence of OwL, a remix album of the band’s songs that was released in 1998—and as creators of a kind of intimate folk music made for the digital age whose influence has been carried on by the names that Burton has worked with in the past. Moments of the record’s second half, in particular, feel keenly influenced by that delicately obtuse quality of Bon Iver’s later work, the sense that he’s singing with marbles in his mouth, and the occasional line on here will feel less like spoken words but noise processed. Other moments draw in a more direct fashion from older, longstanding influences. The opening tickle of “Dancing and Fire,” for instance, conjures an ambient, foreboding version of “Harvest Moon.”
“Dancing and Fire” is interesting as well in that it provides one of the small, traceable harmonies, which Sparhawk and Parker hold briefly before their lines split and go their own way into the mist. Their music used to possess an abundance of these—a famous quote compares them to those of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. But in later albums, Low became known for songs that were singular “taut musical statements.” On much of Double Negative, their voices simmer and cross fade into each other, rarely meeting but remaining connected nonetheless. At the end of “Dancing and Fire,” Sparhawk chants "It's not the end / It's just the end of hope.”
The line refers, I would take it, to the title of Low’s 1994 debut, I Could Live in Hope. It is never unremarkable that the band has stayed around for as long as it has, outliving most of its Midwest slowcore peers save Mark Kozelek, who also dabbles in electronics but has, overall, taken the once-shared sound in a more conservatively minimal direction. On Double Negative, Low push forward ambitiously, sound dialed to maximum volume. This isn’t music that hums while you multitask at the office, it soars.