Embrace Low’s inner austerity and hopelessness.
Throughout the 25 years of Low’s existence, their sonic change has come at a glacial pace. It took the band a while to really shift away from the quiet, arctic slowcore of their early years. As they started recording in better studios with that sweet, sweet Kranky (and later, Sub Pop) money, their sound began to grow larger and even include synthesizers (however gently) – but, still, the core was there: they’re slow, they’re simultaneously gentle and oppressively noisy, and at the center of everything, there’s the voices of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. Their voices, complementary even when they aren’t singing together, is an integral part of what elevates Low. With Low, you come for the drone, but stay for the harmonies.
After 25 years, Low have started to alter an element that has long been sacred: their relationship with the voice. Double Negative doesn’t care about that relationship, and it’s part of what makes their 12th album their most compelling since their loop-heavy Drums & Guns began to dramatically shift the band’s sound towards where we are today. For as often as Parker and Sparhawk are given clear vocals, there’s another, significant chunk of the album where they’re fighting against static and distortion. They take every chance they can to warp and pervert even the most steadfast elements of their work; voices are buried in the mix, fed into alien filters, and blasted to the point of incoherence at least once (no, really: check out “Tempest”). There are no truly conventional songs here – with each new track comes a new challenge.
Right from the get-go, “Quorum” opens with a static-driven, almost disorienting pulse. Sparhawk’s voice comes in, but it matches the build of the beat, his voice rising to a roar before quickly crashing down to the bottom of the mix along with the inhuman static that accompanies him – it feels like he’s struggling to keep his head above the waves. It’s enough to make you question whether your headphones have chosen to short out, but then his voice comes in clear as a bell: “I’m tired or seeing things/ You put away a book/ What are you waiting for?” he sings, taking advantage of the stillness before the static returns.
Before you know it, the song has changed and you’re in “Dancing and Blood,” and a thudding, motorik beat drops in, as muscular as a beating heart. Now it’s Parker’s turn to fight against the onslaught, her typically pristine vocals now rendered not just buried, but distant – it sounds like she’s 50 feet from the mic. More sounds come into focus, and it begins to feel less like Low and more like a Oneohtrix Point Never collaboration. Parker’s voice slowly shifts to the front of the mix, though still shrouded. Before you know it, we’re back in something that resembles a Low song, though it still feels haunted. Alien textures build on top of each other, static buzzing flickering in and out around her while she fights for dominance, but at best achieves a standstill.
“Dancing And Blood” clocks in at six-and-a-half minutes, thanks in part to a two-minute outro of Parker and Sparhawk pursuing a harmony not unlike the hum of a swarm of insects. That hum carries us into “Fly,” one of the most “normal” songs of the bunch. Another Parker-centric song, her voice clear and untreated delivering classically sparse, obtuse lyrics: “But I don’t know/ And I don’t mind/ Take my weary bones/ And fly,” her aching voice sings amid a quietly building and dissipating hum and bass beat. “Fly” feels like a tease in some ways, because even though it’s the most classically Low-like song of the album, it still flickers with reminders that you’re in entirely new territory.
The resemblance Double Negative bears to past Low records shifts constantly. On the one hand, songs like “Always Up” give us a dose of classic Sparhawk/Parker harmonies and a few gorgeous moments of quiet for Parker’s crisp voice to cut through the mess. “Always Up” is made even better by being the song directly after the aptly-titled “Tempest,” so distorted it’s hard to make out who is on vocal duties, much less what they’re singing, vocoder drowned in a sea of feedback. Even when can make out the lyrics, answers are hard to come by: “You can/ Forgive, Them, them, You grin/ For them all/ Even when you won’t.” Before you know it, you’re in the beat-heavy “Always Trying to Work It Out,” which subtly replicates the surging beats of “Quorum,” though without the dense static. “Always Trying” gives you just long enough to get comfortable before warping Sparhawk’s voice again, bringing Low somewhere closer to Purity Ring than Codeine. We listen as he attempts to keep hold as his pitch is shifted, the album still intent to shred the band of its most human elements wherever possible.
It’s wholly remarkable that the band have spent the last half of their career gently pursuing accessibility, and have carelessly thrown the concept out a window in pursuit of Double Negative. The fascinating thing, though, is that despite what a jarring rush the first pass-through is, repeated listens render even the most difficult moments craveable. Long-time fans will delight in such an obtuse record that defiantly asks the listener not just to listen, but to repeatedly journey through it in search of clarity. It periodically adopts human structures to lure you in, but they’re under no delusion that you’re convinced: “Poor Sucker” plays at a gospel structure, but still blows out Parker’s sharp words: “Here I am, everything you broke/ There ain’t nothing left to take/ If your eyes dried up/ What the hell you gonna say/ Gonna give it to you fast/ Gonna give it to you straight.” She’s always been good at downplaying her own intensity, but here, it’s hard not to think about the “Some songs feel like butter/ Some songs sound like cake” Parker from The Invisible Way and marvel at how far removed she is right now.
Double Negative invokes many things, from Alex Garland’s Annihilation and its perverse joy in the corruption of natural form, to House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski for its alienating atmosphere and difficult structure and even the sounds of phantom nostalgia invoked by Oneohtrix Point Never. Yet the album is simply unlike anything else in its field. The closest comparison may be to recent work from another veteran trio, Yo La Tengo’s fantastic There’s a Riot Going On. That album presents a post-traumatic comedown, a wash of lush, warm textures that comfort and soothe. Low provide the flip-side with a record born out of post-traumatic angst, but one that chooses to dissociate, to shred everything and become less human as a shield against further trauma. The band have long struck a compelling balance between hopefulness and defeat, but this is the first time they’ve given into the ruthless crush of the latter, and Sparhawk manages to nail that down perfectly on “Dancing and Fire”: “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope” – or, in the words of closer “Disarray,” “Before it falls into total disarray/ You’ll have to learn to live a different way.” Considering the trying times we live in, it’s inspiring that Low have managed to cope by learning how to fully – and artfully – embrace their inner austerity and hopelessness.