mu­sic In­side Our Ma­chines

An­wen Craw­ford on Low’s ‘Dou­ble Neg­a­tive’

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE - An­wen Craw­ford on Low’s ‘Dou­ble Neg­a­tive’

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

One senses that each at­tempt at cap­tur­ing truth through song fails these mu­si­cians in the end: fails beau­ti­fully and nec­es­sar­ily.

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.

Low. © Shelly Mos­man / Sub Pop

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