There’s a vocal passage in “Tempest”, the fourth song on Low’s newest album, Double Negative, that carves out a beautiful place inside my head, a glimmering crack in an infinite rough and jagged cavernous geode. Its melody can live there for hours at a time. Crystalline colors, glowing echoes off the shard walls – Enchanting and cosmically entrancing. It’s hardly possible to make out the words in their harmonious chant. It sounds something like “Even when you’re wrong” while lyric sites claim it’s “Even when you won’t.” Regardless, the purity of the vocal coupling of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker has always cast a spell that goes beyond simple lyrics and into an emotional core deep within the listener, a place that’s dark but lovely.
The shame of this song is that we’re only permitted to enjoy it despite itself. Their voices fight through a curtain of static and thumping electro-discord, and that’s before the high-end pitches start blearing and knifing your ears like concert lights swinging into your eyes at a show. My wife described the overall sensation as being like listening to a person who desperately needs to clear their throat (but won’t). And this is when a music writer’s mind starts searching for meaning.
Most of the record sounds like a lost basement artifact, tapes full of clipping and static and imperfection that were hidden away in a damp chest like Emily Dickinson’s poems – Oops, caught myself imagining again. But that’s just the way the album forces its listener to create a backstory, some kind of myth to explain the preternatural combination of aural clutter, empty space, and fragmentary melodies that come off as simultaneously half-baked and utterly rapturous.
This phenomenon explains the lusty reviews that buzzed up the internet during the album’s first week with, frankly, dazzling prose, caressing the edges of poetry, striving to flood light onto the meaning of it all, how this album defines our current times (TR*MP!!!), how it forces the listener to confront what’s become of us all in this era of techno-terror. And these reviews can be very persuasive. Almost enough to make you question your first impressions. The intensity with which this album is being defined by the music press could have the force to push it into that heavenly realm of Definitive Albums With Great Purpose. What will we think about it in ten years, though? In twenty? In fifty? Will our grandkids be begging us for stories about Low’s legendary Double Negative tour of 2018?
*hops into time machine*
*hops out of time machine*
I just got back from the future, and no, they’re actually begging for food, shelter, and stability. It’s a pretty un-groovy place… But even if I’d landed in a non-dystopian future, the musical landscape has changed so drastically since the legend-making days of fifty years past. Fewer albums dropped, people memorized each release until the records were in their blood, then oldies & classic rock stations buried those earworms into the next generation. Low doesn’t have this benefit.
Our current landscape gives your band about two weeks, if their tunes are really bangin’, before something comes along to push them out of the rotation. Spotify lets you listen to every recommendation from every friend (Oh yes, and they all have plenty of recommendations, so don’t ask unless you *really* mean it), and entire back catalogues make every band’s full canon fair game. The universe in your ears. How much of a chance does one album truly have? Even with the full weight of the Current Music Release Authorities behind it?
Can we dance to it?
Despite this album’s two song titles that mention “Dancing,” you’d have to be in some bizarre slow-motion apocalypse rave to be gettin’ down to it. This is a headphones record. This is for cerebral music listeners only. It’s not giving itself to you freely; it’s defying you to claw your way down to its pacemaker heart and rip it out of that tangle of wires yourself. How many non-professional listeners have the patience for that? Is there anything to this “review” other than questions?!
One solid statement: I reject the concept that this is Low’s “Trump Album.” It’s been splattered across the webz on some flimsy proof like “ALAN CALLED THE PRESIDENT A PRICK!” or “IT’S SAD SOUNDING!” First, every artist has called the president a prick. Secondly, Low were writing depressing songs during much better times, like “So Blue” or “Just Make It Stop” on The Invisible Way during the halcyon year of 2013 and under the production of ‘Aw, Shucks’ personified, Jeff Tweedy. Sadness is what Low wears for every occasion.
There were many review-writer callbacks to Low’s 2007 album, Drums and Guns, which is apparently their “Iraq War Album.” As a Low consumer whose first reference point was The Great Destroyer and who went backward into the catalogue then let them slip away for a few years and then finally caught up, Drums and Guns sounded to me like… a Low record. That’s the thing: their lyrics aren’t going to help those set on cementing their records to a particular date in time or event in history, despite any offhand comments from the band given during interviews or concerts.
On Double Negative‘s second track, “Dancing and Blood,” the distant static-ghost of Mimi’s voice sings “What could I say? / Taken aback / All that you gave / Wasn’t enough.” IT’S ABOUT HILLARY, EVERYBODY! Or, y’know, about literally anyone in life. And by the time you get to “It’s inside / Keep in the know /Throw in the earth / Dancing and blood,” you remember that the lyrics and, overall, the meaning take a backseat in Low’s work, leaving you with a feeling, inevitably sad but equally beautiful, i.e. the tone of humanity’s existence here on Earth for as long as we’ve been worthy of a tone. It’s eternal, and the sheer act of trying to hammer it to the wall of history like a passing calendar date is an offense to the actual heart and sinew of the music.
So, then… How will this album stack up in the band’s catalogue when it’s all said and done, when the Born and Died dates are finally chiseled into Low’s stone? This will be a divisive one, like Bowie’s Low (ironically) or Tom Waits’ Bone Machine. Some will never hear past the production to find the songs that could have been, while others will appreciate the sketchbook quality of this phase-shifting tone poem, where songs nearly form, then melt, then reform in another fashion, only to dissolve into nothingness or explode into otherness.
After “Tempest,” “Always Up” soothes, the static immediately drops, beauty remains. This is the album’s first glimpse of a traditional Low sound, just popping in to remind you that the band still exists under the production-magic trappings. Though they’re pushed back into a corner of the aural space, as if they were practicing in the apartment next door, this stripped down tune will serve as a balm even to those who tried to fully dismiss the album thus far (like me, after my first listen. If I’d been told then that I’d someday be on my thirtieth listen, I would’ve said “WELL, I GUESS ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE IN TRUMP’S AMERICA!” or something like that.).
There’s a long ambient drift between “Always Up” and the next song, allowing for the time and space to forget that you were listening to an album at all. The band takes plenty of advantage of time here; the music is never rushed. It wanders off and seems to have gone somewhere else entirely, maybe off into someone else’s headphones, leaving you alone with your thoughts about what just happened to your ears. After this particular hush, “Always Trying to Work It Out” drops, breaking out what may be the only clear and complete Low song in the collection. Aside from Alan’s pitch-shifted vocals and the electro-slam drums, this could be on any of their recent albums. Then they follow it up with a full track of nothing but sound and atmosphere…
Is it frustrating? Is it genius? Is it all of these things fired up in a spoon and sucked into a needle to fuel your most epically nasty downer? My brain chemistry’s been altered, at least. Beyond whether or not it’s a “good album”, it’s that this curious artifact exists at all that’s most vitally consequential. Regardless of any unnecessary and burdening historical context, that is the essential accomplishment. It was an enormous gamble made by a band whose tremendous lifespan has given them the comfort to roll those dice.
You can feel this scene play out in slow-motion with “Disarray”, the album’s percussive finale, as its soundtrack: Low shaking those dice with their faces expressionless (as always), the album’s producer jumping up and down urging them on with his reddened face and bulging eyes, the crowd in varying states of readiness, shifting back and forth for the best view of the mobbed table. But before we can see the dice land, while all the eyes are still on the aired out spinning cubes and the excitement is reaching its peak, fists pounding the craps table, fists lifting the air, fists in mouths open awaiting the right sound to make at the conclusion, the song and the album are over. Cut to black.
Winning. Losing. These aren’t terms we need in art. What an absolute relief.
P.S. Re: “Rome (Always in the Dark)” — Cool song and all, but no one wants Alan Sparhawk to sound like Wayne Coyne. Let’s not do that again.
– David C. Casey