When a band hits a certain age, there’s a tendency to stop thinking of a group as temperamental, searching artists, and as more of an institution. After all, most acts that make it past the decade milestone hew toward settling into a certain stylistic groove—and more often than not, it’s one that tends to mellow over time. Those bands make archetypes instead of art, or—if they are among the few who manage to retain a vibrant creative muse—compelling new versions of the same themes and structures found throughout their careers. And then there are the vanishingly rare bands like Low; as is once again proven on new album HEY WHAT, a group (turned duo) 27 years into its career can still startle, awe, and enthrall by reinventing its sound in ways more ambitious and experimental than 99% of the bands out there.
For most of its first decade, it seemed as though the Duluth, Minnesota-based band Low had found its groove. The trio of singer-guitarist Alan Sparhawk, singer-drummer Mimi Parker, and original bassist John Nichols (soon replaced by Zak Sally, who left the band in 2005) had an original, singular formula: molasses-slow tempos and spare, ethereal musicality, over which Sparhawk and Parker laid one of the most distinctive unions of vocal harmonies in contemporary rock, and arguably the past century of pop music as a whole.
But towards the end of its first ten years, Low’s electronic flourishes and harder-edged elements that began to appear on records like Secret Name and Trust ended in the sharp stylistic left turn of The Great Destroyer, an out-and-out rock record that scrambled any preconceived notions about what a “Low song” sounds like. And that experimentation has never really stopped since—albums can go from electronic and icy to organic and sprawling without interruption, culminating in last year’s Double Negative, a boldly experimental work that stripped the percussion and buried the group’s signature vocals and instrumentation beneath layers of tape manipulations and glitchy distortion. It was easy to admire, but harder to love.
On HEY WHAT, however, Sparhawk and Parker have found a sonic sweet spot between the beauty and the noise. There’s a febrile creative tension present throughout the work, a push and pull between opposites: chaos and control, challenging and sensitive, punishing and redemptive. For every vicious eruption of feedback, there’s a resurgence of warm organic harmonies; for every minute-long tap of a solitary percussive beat, a lush barrage of synths. This is a recording that revels in the possibilities of the album-long statement of purpose, circling back on itself and flowing from one song into the next, sometimes smoothly, sometimes jarring, but always with an aim towards a cohesive whole. That said whole is, in fact, an unstable mosaic of conflicting moods and meanings is the entire point.
From the beginning, the record acknowledges that there’s a continuation of the fractured, overdriven experimentation from Double Negative, as opener “White Horses” begins with a sound collage, noisy and mutating, until 40 seconds in, Sparhawk and Parker’s voices join in inimitable harmony. A meditation on the impossibility of stability or certainty (“only a fool would have the faith”), it nonetheless ends in inevitability, much like life itself. “Still white horses take us home,” they repeat, as a vicious noise erupts over the top of it, as though the song’s being ripped in two behind them. As it ends, a remaining synthetic metronome ticks out the seconds into “I Can Wait,” where their voices are now accompanied by a pulsing, fuzzed-out, organ-like throb of descending notes. “I’m afraid / a mistake has been made / there’s a price to be paid,” goes a central line, as a swell of washed-out keys rise. Multiple tracks revisit these themes, often via striking imagery and phrases repeated until they take on the texture of another phase-shift in the overdriven soundscapes that rise and fall throughout.
Sometimes, the crush of layers and mid-song irruptions of static belie the simplicity of the melodic arrangements. “Disappearance” churns along on a mere four-note pattern that pulses with a massive presence, like a giant fighting the whipping wind of a snowstorm, lumbering across a frozen Midwestern tundra. Words give way to intonations, as the title interjection of the nearly eight-minute “Hey” becomes a looping transition into an ambient wash, like a hosanna choral note held for seeming eternity. Those notes continue to lift and lower, not just within songs, but across them; it’s as though the whole album is caught in the waves, swirling with the eddies—and occasionally pulled down by the undertow.
Arguably the most sweetly bombastic music and melody on the album comes in the middle, with the triumphantly pessimistic “Days Like These.” The duo’s harmonizing here feels almost elemental, punching in and out of the mix like church bells, before the second verse finds them completely overdriven by the maxed-out static: “You know you’re never gonna feel complete / no, you’re never gonna be relieved / maybe never even see belief / that’s why we’re living in days like these.” As this section fades into ambience, accompanied by the faintest of percussive heartbeats, all sound eventually exists, save for the slight airy hiss of an empty room. It’s one of their finer accomplishments.
Some of these adventures in fusing disparate sounds and themes don’t quite cohere. The roughly two minutes of “There’s A Comma After Still” is more sonic tone poem than song, as though a church-choir tenor wandered into a noise show. And the trend of largely abandoning traditional rhythm-section dynamics and organic percussion continues, with only closer “The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)“ employing anything resembling a normal kick-snare-hi-hat beat. But that’s the goal here: 13 albums in, Sparhawk and Parker have set out to do nothing less than achieve musical catharsis without any of the standard tricks employed by the usual rock-band instrumentation. Even the verse-chorus-verse moments are partially undone by the jarring intrusions of feedback and loops. More successfully than on Double Negative, Low has fused the thesis and antithesis of its musical identity, creating a transcendent synthesis of its fragile, beautiful ego and raging experimental id. Lucky 13, indeed.