album review

Finding Beauty in Low’s Unsettling Machine Blues

Photo: Shelly Mosman/Sub Pop Records

The Duluth, Minnesota, indie rockers Low have been crafting delicate, icy, minimalist guitar music for 25 years. They weren’t the first on the scene in the early ’90s “slowcore” boom, where bands like Codeine, Ida, and the Red House Painters whittled arrangements down and decelerated rock’s hard charging pace to a crawl, but they have outlasted most of their peers thanks to the bond shared by co-founders Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, childhood friends, spouses, and parents to two teenagers. Low perseveres because Alan and Mimi aren’t afraid to torch the formula and draft a new one. 2001’s Things We Lost in the Fire worked hard to sweeten the chilly austerity they’d built up over early albums like Long Division and I Could Live in Hope; 2005’s divisive The Great Destroyer ramped up the volume and tempo, at the cost of coming out alarmingly conventional. 2015’s Ones and Sixes came to life at Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon’s hometown April Base Studio in Wisconsin with 22, A Million collaborator BJ Burton as producer. Sixes flipped the script again, adding tasteful synth textures to the three-piece’s gossamer mix without upsetting the balance. Low’s puckish early objective was confronting midwestern grunge audiences with the sound of silence, and they continue to find new ways to challenge and confound their base.

This week’s Double Negative, another Burton collaboration crafted at April Base, is a new metamorphosis. The electronic accents of Ones and Sixes are the main pulse now; the conversion from pleasing, patient guitar, bass, and drum songs to the ambient drones and forbidding borderline noise is a shock on par with the Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto’s seminal body horror film Tetsuo: The Iron Man, where a man commits a crime and wakes up to discover his body slowly turning into metal. Double Negative is also a commentary on human cruelty and terror; asked what the title refers to in a recent interview with The Wire, Sparhawk said, “There are negative things going on, and we’re reacting negatively.” The new songs came together after the 2016 election, but the album differs from others this year that seem bruised by sociopolitical strife in that it isn’t just an emotional response to the spiritual bummer accompanying our rapid descent into cultural warfare. It’s also a provocation for the parties responsible. Opener “Quorum” is a cry for justice: “You’ve torn vacant stares / You tried to break the quorum.” “A quorum is the minimum amount of a group of people that needs to be there to make a decision for that decision to be valid,” Sparhawk explained to The Wire. The president lost the popular vote by 3 million ballots.

In its long stretches of peaceful, eddying drones, Double Negative also resembles New York composer William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, another artifact of American decay. Basinski famously finished the project, which documents the sound of 20-year-old tape recordings crumbling, on the morning of 9/11. Both records’ crash into sad, gorgeous rot brush against the pulse of the times. But where 2001 fell from bullish comfort to paranoiac warmongering, 2018 has seen America gnawing away at itself, so Low’s vision is decidedly more disquieting. For every moment of calm — see: the chant that closes “Dancing and Blood” or the lengthy drone that consumes “Always Up” two-thirds in — there’s something terrifying lying in wait. The thicket of static and howling voices comprising the meat of “The Son, the Sun” must be what Dante Alighieri heard when he imagined Hell. “Quorum” traps a beautiful melody behind a wall of clattering noise in the same way that Ben Frost records whittle pretty sounds down to jagged things, like shivs.

Double Negative recasts Sparhawk and Parker’s light, ephemeral approach to melody as something hard and steely. Album highlight “Tempest” has a vocal that is both pleading and nearly unintelligible, like someone using April Base’s trademark robot harmony tech without laying clean vocals on top. Mimi’s voice sputters through “Dancing and Blood” like a flickering hologram. Bassist Steve Garrington is actually the MVP of this album; his role as arbiter of the band’s keyboards and low end is crucial to the guttural reaches of the new songs. A few of the eerie, sustained vocal melodies throughout Double Negative are actually samples of Sparhawk and Parker’s voices, meaning there’s electronics at play even in the human elements of the album. What’s astounding about the radical changes in gear and method is that, beneath the static, Low still sounds like Low. Melodies still bob and drift like fish lounging in a tank. Alan’s and Mimi’s voices still seem made expressly for each other, even processed to a point of technological singularity. The notes everyone plays and sings still root themselves in Western rock and folk traditions.

There’s a cinematic feel to Double Negative’s unsettling machine blues. The balance of serenity and calamity here plays a kindred spirit to Alfonso Cuarón’s white knuckle sci-fi thriller Gravity (and Steven Price’s Academy Award–winning score), where Sandra Bullock plays an astronaut whose failed mission to repair the Hubble telescope destroys her ship and leaves her floating in space and, eventually, hurtling back to Earth. Double Negative is front-loaded with all of the most alien, forbidding sounds; the album is sequenced as a slow drift from parts unknown back to familiar territory. The late album gems “Dancing and Fire,” “Poor Sucker,” and “Rome (Always in the Dark)” could reasonably fit on any of the last three Low albums, but here, situated at the end of a dizzying program of augmented voices and whirring noises, they feel like the grizzled perseverance at the bottom of a moment of distress. “Before it falls into total disarray,” Sparhawk sings on the closer, “you’ll have to learn to live a different way.” It’s the closest thing to a pop song the album is willing to muster, a hopeful, ascending melody assembled out of squelching, flatulent noises that seems to say, in its lyrics and composition, that unpleasantness is best used as kindling, as fuel to get to a better place.

Finding Beauty in Low’s Unsettling Machine Blues