By Logan McRay
Since forming in 1993 in Duluth, Minnesota, Low has been an anomaly in the Indie Rock/Alternative Music scene. The husband and wife team of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker (joined by bassist Steve Garrington) are openly practicing Mormons with children. They play music that is at times beautiful and draped in melancholy. While not overtly spiritual, their music has typically had an ethereal quality to it. Until now.
For their 12thstudio album they have again employed the services of producer, BJ Burton, who produced their 2015 album “Ones and Sixes” and has worked with artists such as Bon Iver and Eminem. This album strikes me as a collection of ideas (many of them engaging) that were tasked to a producer and engineer to distort, compress, edit together, and hopefully make a simulacrum of an enjoyable listen. Low had a similar approach on the obtuse 2007 album “Drums and Guns.” Where that album had a sense of playfulness, this one seems like an unrewarding exercise.
What struck me about Low in the past is the ability to take simple melodies and harmonies and push them to a transcendent level. The eight-minute distorted rock spiritual “Nothing But Heart” from 2011’s “C’mon” immediately comes to mind. They have been able to inject soulfulness into a genre sometimes smothered by the weight of negativity and nihilism. The band on this album sounds gutted. Vocals fade in and out, are over-driven, pitched, and obliterated. Guitars are sparse and percussion overtly artificial. I would never buy a Low album expecting to hear “Metal Machine Music” but here we are.
Low has made no secret that the recording of this album spanned the months following the election of Donald Trump and captured the anxieties that followed. Their liberal leanings are made clear on social media, where they frequently promote abortion, LGBTQ agendas, and Antifa organizers. While their lyrics remain staunchly ambiguous, the election of a president many consider a “White Supremacist” must have been wrenching for the band. The inner turmoil they must have felt expresses itself in a distant and disconnected collection of songs. How does it feel to be a middle aged, White, Christian married couple with children working in an industry that openly hates what you are? Is the heft of your “privilege” overwhelming? You tour the world and make music for a living. To assuage the guilt, you support the right causes and your virtue is unimpeachable to the liberal masses. Deep down you must know that your simple existence sickens them. Make no mistake; the signaling and lip service and charitable donations will never be enough. They will come for you. And the ones coming for you will not be the ones you call “Nazis.”
There was a time when listening to Low could be a connective and life affirming experience. They sounded like musicians with purpose and spirit. The discomfort on this album is palpable. “Double Negative” is the sound of cultural entropy.