CD of the Month: Low - "Hey What"
As bands move farther and farther in their careers, a narrative arc of their journey eventually forms. You can have the story of a band who stuck with what they knew and lived in a relatively static soundworld, or you can have a band who evolved with time and tried on new guises to see how they fit. The band Low, now going twenty-eight years strong, have positioned themselves somewhere in between this divide, with their sound slowly shifting and expanding over the course of twenty-plus releases, but with the distinct harmonies of husband-and-wife core duo Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker always remaining. One dramatic trend over the band’s tenure is the move into louder, dirtier sonic territories. How far we’ve come from the sparse, negative space of their 1994 debut I Could Live In Hope, to the distorted, digitally-marred world of their latest effort, Hey What, which could easily be the work of two different bands if not for the anchor of those familiar voices. It’s sadly a common trope in rock music for a band to become stale and out-of-touch this far into making records, but Low has fantastically bucked this trend and is making high-water mark work almost thirty years deep.
The trajectory of Low can easily be tracked in certain ways to the producers who they were working with at the time, to their beginnings with NYC producer Kramer, to their stint with the ever in-demand Steve Albini, and a one-off with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. The band’s latest album is their third with producer BJ Burton, who has worked often in the pop world with artists like Lizzo, Kacey Musgraves, and Charli XCX, but is maybe most known for his Grammy-nominated work on the last two Bon Iver albums. Low’s journey with Burton began with 2015’s Ones and Sixes, introducing the noisier, more synthetic sound that would be further developed to great success on 2018’s Double Negative, and now fully realized on Hey What. Their previous effort still had moments where an easily identifiable sound could be pointed out, but now, the band has completely assimilated into their glitchy, warped surroundings, with their human voices the sole organic element consistently remaining. This new package has not made the band all-edges this far in, as they’re making music just as sublime and gorgeous as they did in their early days. The album’s first single “Days Like These” is a good A/B test to the effects of Burton’s guiding hand, flipping between the simple vocal and keyboard lines and the sole moment of recognizable guitar strums, to those same sounds now heavily fortified with distortion. I found an early demo of this song doing research for this piece, and hearing it as a “normal” guitar-and-drums song lays out the distance the music travels between its inception and its abstracted final version. The songs on this album seem to rise up from this hazy, noisy ether to greet you, only to fade back at their close, leaving you anticipating what’s next to take shape. The band has embraced minimalism in some aesthetic way since the beginning, and with the roaring electronics behind them, they’ve chosen the lyrics to embody it this time around. Sparhawk’s words are chosen very carefully and sparingly, with repetition common across the album. The phrases repeated in “I Can Wait” seem to tonally flip between insistence and internal reassurance as the song progresses. The lyrics feel both about general feelings of unease and disbelief in the times we’re living in and the unknowns ahead, and musings on very specific facets of the life between the husband and wife bandmates. Being bound together in multiple ways brings depth beyond the surface level beauty of the pair’s harmonies, in particular on songs like “Don’t Walk Away,” a ballad floating in a wash of drones and disembodied voices.
Two seven-minute songs mark the album’s halfway and end points, and the closer, “The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off),” provides the sole passage of distinguishable drumming from Parker, after over forty minutes of waiting. Low have gained complete control of their new electronic shell, and prove it by totally encapsulating themselves in it, only allowing brief glimpses of the moving parts inside. You don’t even hear a bare guitar until over halfway through the album, and just once. The band has shown themselves over nearly three decades to be masterful creators, unable to be confined by the stylistic trappings of their beginnings, and instead constantly pushing forward, to be at once alien and familiar. Low has revealed a new world in front of them with Hey What, and I’ll be waiting with bated breath for what’s across the horizon.
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