By Matt Treon
Pressing play on a Low album is a near-masochistic practice of the sweetest kind — it’s going to hurt a little, but it’s ultimately going to be a pleasurable thing. And Low’s newest album The Invisible Way (due out March 19 via Sub Pop) is no exception, and it may even be the most striking example of Low’s wrenching ability to make music as beautiful as it is haunting and as enjoyable as it is tormenting. Low writes wholehearted songs.
The trio from Minnesota — made up of married couple and founders Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, and multi-instrumentalist Steve Garrington — build songs intertwined with compelling instrumentation and seductive vocals, where it’s all about choice and placement and mix, reminiscent of much but equated to very little. Sparhawk and Parker’s arresting vocals have long been the core of Low’s sound, but joining the mix on this album is a piano, played by Garrington in a way that subtly alters the band’s sound.
Low also put the production reins into new hands: Wilco frontman and rock heavyweight Jeff Tweedy. They decided to work with Tweedy at the Wilco studio in Chicago. “It’s good to get out of a space you normally use, and hear the sounds somewhere different,” Mimi Parker said during a recent conversation with The Marquee. “And Jeff knew where we were going, and he suggested great things, and was very tasteful. It was a great experience.”
Tweedy’s hand in the making of this new album is evident in its overall sonic topography. Something a little different from other Low work is how, even with a lot of lush layering, all of the parts stand side-by-side, moving in and out of one another. Everything is clear but still clearly part of a bigger something. But even with Tweedy’s masterful touches, in these songs it’s easy to hear that Low is still their own primary sound engineer. “We had all the songs written and demoed before we went into the studio,” Parker said. “Then we tracked them all in five days, and mixed them in another five days. We always go in as prepared as we think we can be.”
The Invisible Way also showcases Parker’s vocals more than ever before. Parker’s voice — fronting five of the eleven songs — is a thing of power that has grown on each Low album. “If it were up to Alan, he wanted me to sing them all,” Parker said. “So we compromised, and I wrote more, and sang on more. I felt like I needed to be braver.”
The first single off the album, “Just Make It Stop,” is a pop-driven number with big percussive texture and several tracks of Parker’s voice hovering overhead the whole way. “Amethyst” is a molasses-slow piece that begins with a minute or so of interplay, both lucid and moving, between guitar and piano, each employing the signature Low restraint and leaving an almost painful amount of space between the notes. Then Sparhawk and Parker fill that space singing in tight unison.
But the towering song “On My Own” pulls the extreme sides of Low’s personality in all directions. It starts upbeat, with Sparhawk and Parker singing together, and Garrington playing some walking lines with his left hand on the piano. But there’s something almost sinister to how the song never commits to being the pop gem it ostensibly seems to be. Maybe it’s the irony of how the two voices are singing, in such tight harmonies, the words “on my own.” And then at the two-and-a-half minute mark the song cuts into halftime, and a thick guitar bleeds all over with tortured bends, lashing out a few times in frenzied runs (and anyone who’s seen Retribution Gospel Choir live knows that Sparhawk’s guitar has a beast within it that he can unleash when needed). All of that happens while the light piano turns into weighty stabs. Then the voices come back in to repeat the refrain “happy birthday” in stark contrast to the stirring instrumentation, and it feels like Sparhawk and Parker are going through the years, clocking time’s ever-present ticking. There’s certainly something ominous happening that can’t be turned off, or even down, because the culminating effect of all this is mesmerizing and charming in a way that only Low seems capable of.
This sort of battle between opposing things — summed up in a moment on the album when Sparhawk sings, “You think it’s pretty/Oh no/But I am a raging river/I’ll cut through your city/Oh no” — is the strongest characteristic of Low’s songs. For their two-decade-and-counting career they’ve seemed consistently engaged in a deeply personal exploration with their music, with lyrics that often go off on tangents, ruminating on strife, perseverance, love, death and violence. Their songs always seem dispatched from some private universe. And for us to get access to that, time and time again, even if just for an hour or so at a time, is a special thing.
:: Low ::
:: Larimer Lounge :: March 29 ::
Recommended if you Like:
• Red House Painters
• Retribution Gospel Choir