Low seemed like a singular group from the start. They were a married, practicing Mormon couple, dedicated to playing as soft and slow as possible, in the teeth of the early 90s grunge era. In fact, Low stood out so much that people felt compelled to invent a new subgenre to describe what they were doing: slowcore. It was a label the band disliked and quickly outgrew; it turned out that they could move at a fairly fast pace when it suited them.
Then, 25 years into their career, Low became even more singular. Their sound had always shifted and changed, sometimes in unpredictable directions, and electronic percussion crept into 2015’s Ones and Sixes. But nothing could quite prepare listeners for 2018’s Double Negative, which took the genre of studio processes common in modern mainstream pop – offbeat vocals, digital manipulation, the sidechain compression that makes the rhythm tracks of pop-dance hits puncture everything else – pushed all the way up to 11 and applied them to a rock band. The end result was an album that was truly unlike anything else. Low weren’t the only alt-rock artists thinking along roughly the same lines – Double Negative was produced by BJ Burton, who had worked on Bon Iver 22’s fractured tech A Million – but the pure end with which the band’s sound was changed changed Double Negative into a category of its own.
Moreover, it was released 18 months into the Trump presidency, when his campaign managers were jailed for fraud, and Rudy Giuliani told NBC that “the truth is not the truth.” His lyrics rarely dealt with American politics — instead dealing with everything from Mormon attitudes to gay marriage to mental health — but his short-circuiting bursts of unidentifiable sounds, distorted vocals, and overwhelming mood of dread always seemed match at the time, feeling like a transmission from a country disastrously on the fritz, “dissolved in a state of awful reverse” as its closing track put it.
Praise for album of the year followed, but the shock of Double Negative also seemed to raise concerns for the band that had made it. It felt like music literally pushed to the limit, and once you push everything to the limit, the question of where you go next becomes pressing. Fortunately, this is a question that Hey What answers perfectly by refining and adapting the sound of its predecessor.
The first thing you hear on the White Horses opener is guitar turned into a sort of gasping, stuttering whine, followed by a rhythm track made up of crisp digital distortion. This last sound may have been produced by a guitar before, but it is impossible to say for sure. The song ends with an unadorned minute and a half of its unwavering pulse, which quickens and becomes the basis for the second track, I Can Wait. Then, when you encounter the spongy sonic textures of All Night – you finally give up figuring out which instrument was originally involved – it’s hard not to be struck by the idea that on someone’s album else, it might be the weirdest piece; on Hey What, it’s like a kind of respite, before being immersed in the increasingly deadly sonic world of Disappearing.
So note that Low isn’t interested in reducing Double Negative’s conflicting experiential advantage, but that’s not the whole story. Hey What is also a much more melodic album than its predecessor. The beautiful harmony vocals of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker are largely unprocessed and louder, which seems to give the songs – or at least the listener – a little more breathing room.
This matches the tone of the album, which cannot be called optimistic, but at least strikes a note of stoicism. The strength of Sparhawk and Parker’s partnership as a bulwark against the former’s fight against depression informs Don’t Walk Away and The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off). The lyrics to Days Like These consider the world going from crisis to crisis, but there’s something truly moving about the melody, which cuts through the backing’s frazzled sound explosions, while the long instrumental coda feels calm and resolved. At other times, the juxtaposition of vocals and music is more unsettling: Hey has the most beautiful melody on the album, but it’s placed on a medium that constantly shifts from a delicate, scintillating mood to something something much darker and scarier. Stranger still, in its own way, Hey What rocks, notably on the fantastic More, based on a riff that seems equal parts Led Zeppelin and My Bloody Valentine, if you squint.
Many bands have been compared to My Bloody Valentine over the years, largely because they were desperately trying to sound like them. The basses aren’t really, but they still feel it deserves a name. The music Low is currently making carries a similar, head-spinning, where-the-hell-did-come-from-to Isn’t Anything and Loveless tune; like those albums, the folks behind Hey What are redefining the sound of a rock band. It says something – about Low and rock music – that you have to go back 30 years to find something with these qualities.
What Alexis listened to this week
Tokimonsta and Channel Tres: naked
Disco-infused pop, but Naked feels deeper than that: there’s something offbeat and sinister about the strings, and a sense of unease amid the dancefloor beats.