September 2018

Arts & Letters

Low’s ‘Double Negative’: studies in slow transformation

By Anwen Crawford

Low. © Shelly Mosman / Sub Pop

Twelve albums in, the Minnesota three-piece can still surprise in their unique way

The band Low, a trio, has existed since 1993, though only two of its members, Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk, who are married, have stayed the same. Parker sings and plays the drums. Sparhawk sings and plays electric guitar. The couple’s voices fit together like ice and water, and their songs are studies in slow transformation: consonance becomes dissonance, agitation becomes calm, or vice versa. Freezing, unthawing. Parker has described the marriage and the band as being “one and the same”, which may explain why Low’s third rung of bass player has been occupied by four different people.

The group is based, as it always has been, in Duluth, Minnesota, where the winters are severe. Although more than the weather is at stake in Low’s music, it’s hard to imagine a band with a sound so coldly particular living in Brisbane or Miami. You go to Low not for sunshine and cocktails but for a stinging spiritual exposure. Fun? Not especially. Memorable? As surely as a winter’s night is long.

Low’s 12th studio album, Double Negative, is released this month. Very few bands stick around long enough to make 12 albums, and the ones that do tend to sound, by this point, predictable and tired. But not Low, who can still modulate their fundamental style just enough to surprise you.

They can make one chord change sound like a cataclysm or, less often, like a miracle. Parker’s voice is limpid but aloof. Her kit could fit inside a suitcase. Floor tom. Snare. A couple of cymbals. She plays standing, mostly using brushes rather than sticks. Sparhawk, on his guitar, favours distortion and delay. In his voice he can find a tone that hints at a deep and abiding rage kept in check by an arid sense of humour. The first time I saw Low play live, many years ago, Sparhawk sang a version of The Smiths’ “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” at a tempo slow enough to suggest that the song was moving backwards, while the corners of his mouth twitched into a fraction of a smile.

The group’s early records hewed to their live atmosphere – my pick would be The Curtain Hits the Cast (1996), if you’re after a record austere enough to make Joy Division sound like The Wiggles. That album also contains what may be Low’s masterpiece, “Do You Know How to Waltz?”, a song that gradually opens out onto a wordless, three-chord tundra. Guitar thrums and cymbals shimmer. Come for the bewitching vocal harmony; stay for the intimation of huge and terrible violence. They have been known to play it live for half an hour at a time.

Lately, though, Low’s albums have become a little more spry, a touch embellished. Nothing garish, mind. Ones and Sixes (2015), their previous record, added texture: a drum machine here, a keyboard there. They have trod this territory once or twice before, especially on Drums and Guns (2007). Low is the Agnes Martin of rock bands. You think there’s nothing else to be wrung out of grey pencil stripes and grey pencil stripes and yet more grey pencil stripes, and then: along come grey pencil stripes set beside bone-coloured acrylic paint. Yes! Knock me out.

Double Negative is bolder. It begins with a loop of digital distortion, as abrasive as a polar wind, in the face of which the singers’ voices arrive tattered and slurred. The song, “Quorum”, foregrounds its own assembly, or, rather, its disassembly: the melody gets blasted to bits. The rest of Double Negative is similarly filled with erosions, corrosions and cut-ups. It is an album that pushes the human drama of Low’s music towards the post-human: machine-tuned, replicant.

And it works. If Low were just another cardboard indie band deciding to reinforce their sound with electronics, this move further into studio experimentation wouldn’t be nearly so convincing. But the simplicity of Low’s style has always been wilful, and musically hard-edged. The latter is partly due to Sparhawk’s use of open guitar tuning, a technique common to blues players. (An “open” tuning means that you can play a chord without fretting the strings.) It gives the harmonic structure of Low’s songs an archaic, obdurate base, connecting them not only to the droning underlay of early blues but also to groups like The Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth – both more famous for force than for delicacy.

Double Negative casts Low’s old-world ambience in the light of contemporary pop, especially hip-hop, where computer-generated sound is increasingly the norm. And why shouldn’t it be? We live inside our machines. We leak, we intermesh. On “Always Trying To Work It Out”, Sparhawk’s lead vocal has been stretched so that his pitch and speed drops in and out of human capability. “I saw you at the grocery store, I know / I should have walked over and said hello,” he sings, and the banality of the setting is a part of its truth. There’s nowhere we go that can’t be extended, or augmented, by virtual time and space.

The producer of Double Negative is B.J. Burton, who has previously worked with singer-songwriter Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver. Vernon has, in turn, collaborated several times with Kanye West, including on the song “Friends” (2016), which Burton co-wrote and co-produced. I’m not sure that Double Negative would exist without the precedent set by West, who has normalised vocal processing more than any other current pop musician apart from Rihanna. But the album doesn’t feel derivative. If the soul of Low’s music is singing, then here the musicians sound like they’re being sung. They have let themselves become apparatus, and, in surrendering command, have gained a new potency.

Meanwhile, their sense of melody remains unerring. You can travel through Low’s catalogue and alight upon any number of precise, and concise, songs: “Sunflower” (from Things We Lost in the Fire, 2001), or “Last Snowstorm of the Year” (Trust, 2002), or “What Part of Me” (Ones and Sixes). None is free of disquiet, no matter how lovely the tune, but that’s Low. “Poor Sucker”, on the new record, has the same kind of musical clarity, or it would have, only it sounds as if it has been obscured by thick glass.

It works too because enigma is Low’s ruling spirit. While the atmosphere of their songs is vivid, the subject matter remains indeterminate, and what they have done on Double Negative is transfer that thematic indeterminacy over to the album’s production, for the first time.

What have they been holding back from elucidation, all these years? I think that Low’s songs are “about” the big things: love, power, mortality, morality – but that’s a bit like saying that the ocean is about its being wet. It misses the complexity in the attempt to define it.

One other thing connects Low’s work to the blues, and to a figure like West, and that’s religious faith. Parker and Sparhawk are Christian (Mormon, to be exact), and while the songs they write are not, overtly, songs of faith – the songs they write are never overt about anything – the emotional weight of them strikes hard and deep. Deeper because one senses that each attempt at capturing truth through song fails these musicians in the end: fails beautifully and necessarily, leaving only partial knowledge. Double Negative is pieced together from many parts, with the fractures left showing.

This album might not bring Low a swathe of new listeners; I doubt they are expecting it to. Commercial success has never bothered them, but, then, they have never sought it. The closest Low have come to fame is that, in Sparhawk’s words, “We got to open for Radiohead.” But success can take other forms. Perhaps it is enough to say that, a quarter-century into their career, this is a band that continues to be brave. “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope,” Sparhawk sings on “Dancing and Fire”. The world can feel that way. Low don’t feel that way.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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