For the first 25 years of the band’s existence, the music of Low was defined by everything it was not: it wasn’t loud, wasn’t fast and wasn’t sloppy. They’re the band that would turn their amps down and inspire audiences to sit on the floor, playing music where glacial movement felt not just natural, but integral. They changed, but only subtly, with few substantial shifts in between records; 2007’s Drums and Guns and its added synths felt about as radical as Dylan going electric. Their consistency has always been a secret to their power – that, and the interplay between the voices of Alan Sparkhawk (guitar) and his wife and drummer, Mimi Parker, whose pristine vocals exist at the center of most songs.

Then came 2018’s Double Negative. Where we once had crystal clear harmonies, willfully corrupted versions of voices, buried under squalls of distortion and accompanied with austere, inhuman sounds felt entirely at odds with every other note that the band had performed. In many ways, the songs within it feel like an exceptionally good Mario game: the tools required to traverse each song (or level) can vary, as though each was constructed in ways specifically designed to challenge you in ways totally different than the one before it.

What makes Double Negative so great – and successful – is that it also feels like it was designed to challenge you without pushing you away. Changing most everything about your sound is a tricky game, but Sparhawk, Parker and bassist Steve Garrington – with the help of producer B.J. Barton, who co-produced the band’s 2015 release Ones and Sixes as well as a solid chunk of Bon Iver’s 22, A Million – sequenced the record so precisely, you can entirely miss how easily it gets you hooked on its alien structures, torrents of white noise and the perverse joy it takes in thwarting everything you assumed to be immovable about what makes Low tick.

“Quorum”

The beginning of the “Double Negative Triptych,” “Quorum” seems like it was designed to be as shocking as possible for long-time Low fans. This is a world made of white noise powerful enough that it takes the form of Sparhawk’s voice, which pulses and surges as he sings. For just a moment, the static wanes and he’s left alone with just a few piano notes. “I’m tired of seeing things… what are you waiting for?” he asks before the encroaching noise sweeps back in, this time with the voice of Parker in the undertow.

When Double Negative was released, I predicted that “Quorum” would make listeners question whether or not they were hearing a corrupted version of the album. As time went on, this proved to be absolutely true.

“Dancing and Blood”

The beat of “Dancing and Blood” begins the instant Sparhawk exits “Quorum,” sounding both mechanical and organic, so uncannily vascular in tone that you can’t tell if it’s a drumbeat, or if they’ve simply sampled an actual beating heart. It – as well as the haunted-sounding, sporadic guitar that occasionally drifts in from the outer darkness. There are synths, but they similarly sound possessed by some unspeakable darkness. The song builds with a sickening pace, and you can lose sight of which sounds are synths, and which are electronically-created harmonies.

Throughout the triptych, Parker’s voice serves as a constant, gradually coming into sharper focus. Her distorted voice in “Quorum” takes a clearer form with “Dancing and Blood,” but it still doesn’t sound like the Parker we know. It’s heavily processed and distant, though it puts up a valiant fight in an effort to finally grab onto the humanity that Sparhawk was afforded in “Quorum,” though only for a moment.

The song seems like it ends around the 3:40 mark, but that still leaves 2:41 to go. This segment gives you a moment to collect yourself, while the captured voices of Parker and/or Sparhawk (it’s hard to tell who) hold a single sustained note. This doesn’t sound human, either – it sounds insect-like. The sound grows as a beat begins to float into the mix.

“Fly”

That struggle between Parker and her oppressor ends with “Fly.” The conclusion the trilogy, it blends with “Dancing” seamlessly enough that you’re in it before you even know it. For her heroism, she’s given the power to sing undeterred. The insect hum persists throughout, but “Fly” is the first song that sounds like it was designed by humans. Garrington, too, becomes more apparent, his bassline landing somewhere in the neighborhood of “sultry,” but without the steamy connotations.

Is Parker one of the best singers of her generation? “Fly” is far from the first song to beg this question – “Slide” and “Lullaby” from I Could Live In Hope are spectacular performances, and each album sees her strength grow – but after listening as she regained her own vocal autonomy throughout the triptych, it somehow feels clearer, and her sorrow-laden delivery of verses like “You’re telling me just one more/ I keep it like it’s torture/ Keep my body like a soldier/ You gotta tell me when it’s over” are enough to help you feel grounded again within Double Negative. The band know these songs are challenging for you, and the chance to breathe “Fly” offers you is necessary – otherwise, you might just lose steam and listen to Things We Lost in the Fire again instead.

“Tempest”

While Parker was able to evade the sonic oppressors of the triptych, Sparhawk was less lucky. Where in moments of “Quorum” you could pick up on what he was singing, here his voice is unintelligible, so fused with whatever noise demons inhabit these songs that he seems more distortion than man. It’s almost punishing to listen to at moments, but it progresses with a perverse beauty, as Sparhawk (as the lyrics reveal) plays on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and issues a mantra of defeat: “Forgive, forget/ Live and let/ You grin and paw/ And laugh it off.”

There’s a moment, about halfway through, where nearly everything drops out, and it seems that normalcy has returned. This is a fake-out, and a warning to steer clear of trying to predict the course Double Negative will take.

“Always Up”

Sparhawk is finally released from the plague of noise, and with “Always Up,” he and Parker are finally given the chance to do what they do best: harmonize. Minor noisiness aside, this ties with “Fly” for the most objectively beautiful song of Double Negative, and perhaps the quietest; Parker’s solo two minutes in is purposefully quiet with just a whisper of piano to join her. Once Sparhawk rejoins her, it seems like you may be hit with another wall of noise, but the glittering noise rises just enough to give their slight voices a small degree of grandeur.

“Always Up” ends the vinyl release’s first side, which feels fitting – the five-song stretch from “Quorum” until now serves to help us get acclimated in the same way that being thrown into the deep end might – it throws truly alien sounds and structures at us, then gradually turns the weirdness down to prevent burn-out. It also serves as the beginning of the album’s “Always” trilogy, though it’s hard to put a finger on what links the three – though the band’s merch table on the tour for Double Negative offered a set of three enamel pins that said “Always Up,” “Always Trying to Work It Out” and “Always in the Dark,” so there may be something there.

“Always Trying to Work It Out”

Sparhawk returns with “Always Trying to Work It Out,” and his voice sounds almost autotuned, with moments of honest-to-god pitch shifting. The bass beat of the song hits so hard that his voice, as well as the electronic noise around him, seem to sink whenever it hits, as though the beat affects the gravity of the song’s environment. Parker does very light lifting on “Always Trying to Work it Out,” but her sparse cries of “Work it out!” in the song’s chorus seem designed to be an antidote to the harsh chaos that Sparhawk’s voice brings.

The song’s lyrics feel almost out of place after everything we’ve heard so far – how are we supposed to take him seriously when he starts singing about awkwardly seeing someone from the past at the grocery store, and the inner struggle of figuring out if you should talk to them? The title refers to the heart of that inner struggle: the wounds left behind by people who exit our lives, and the process of learning to forgive those people – this is the war he’s singing about when he icily sings, “Everybody says that the war is over/ It isn’t something you forget so easily.”

It’s also worth noting that, out of all the songs of Double Negative, “Always Trying to Work It Out” feels like it wouldn’t require much effort to become a dance track – or a killer Industrial single.

“The Son, the Sun”

For as easy as it is to label Double Negative as difficult, a huge part of the reason why it works extremely well is because the album’s progress feels entirely natural. Some moments are jarring, but as with “Fly,” “The Son, the Sun” helps to soften the transition between “Always Trying to Work it Out” and the remainder of the album.

For three-and-a-half minutes, nothing happens. It’s almost pure ambiance, save for the occasional hints of human voices that rise from the song’s surface, blending in enough that you could easily miss that there are any voices on it at all. However, it helps us gently transition into “Dancing & Fire,” which isn’t much more energetic, but is still remarkably tense.

“Dancing and Fire”

As you come up from “The Son, the Sun,” you’re greeted with the subtle “Dancing and Fire.” Unlike “Dancing and Blood,” little is done to alter anyone on the song, save for some odd noises that surround Parker and Sparhawk. Mostly, you just hear the duo, their voices echoing in the darkness around them, and some simple guitar strumming.

The dourness lies in the lyrics: “Dancing and Fire” is no less opaque, and you can read a lot into the themes of strife and human disconnect. One line, repeated twice, feels like the key to understanding the inky black darkness that surrounds much of Double Negative: “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope.” It’s fitting that the least fucked-with song here is the one that cuts to the core of the nihilism the rest of the record espouses.

“Poor Sucker”

Parker rarely gets the opportunity to seem like a total badass, but “Poor Sucker” takes great care in surrounding her with an atmosphere of high drama. Her heavily processed voice is calm amid the noise and minimalist piano surrounding her, as she further works to strip away whatever hope you may have had: “All you’ve given, all you took/ All your promise, all your roles/ After all you’ve done/ Feed your body to the wolves.”

On most Low albums before this, Parker has been a voice of comfort, which holds true for even the most dire moments of Double Negative. Here, though, she’s downright cold, almost uncaring, and the song’s first stanza really hammers that home: “Some poor sucker at the bottom of the lake/ Took the wrong way up when the ground began to break/ It’s a long way back, that’s the price you gotta pay.” She sings like she’s heading to a baptism, her gospel influences incorporated and rendered insidious in tone.

Worth noting: when asked on Twitter who the “poor sucker” in question is, Sparhawk responded succinctly: “You, me.” We can all be that poor sucker if we’re not careful, and no degree of “shoulda this, shoulda that” will save you if you stray too far.

“Rome (Always in the Dark)”

The final piece of the “Always” trilogy is the closest Low have ever come to making an auditory punch in the jaw. Up until now, Double Negative has taken care to transition you between songs as effortlessly as possible, but with buzzsaw guitars and a chugging bassline that makes “Landslide” from Ones and Sixes sound like “Sunflower,” Sparhawk cuts loose, his voice now a shout in an attempt to stay audible amid the legitimately Industrial-sounding onslaught. In the right headphones, it can feel like bombs are being dropped around you.

The song’s meaning is no clearer than any other song on the record, but he seems ready to go down in a blaze of glory: “Let’s turn this thing/ Before they take us out.” The song’s video (which is less a video, and more a disorienting series of heavily distorted and tarnished images) offers no answers, but the visual references to Merzbow’s Pulse Demon seem fitting. Even after everything we’ve encountered, “Rome” is an intense listen.

“Disarray”

The onslaught of “Rome” ends and bleeds into “Disarray,” a song that serves to counteract some of the hopelessness that came before it: “Before it falls into total disarray/ You’ll have to learn to live a different way/ Too late to look back on apocryphal verse/ And to be something beyond kinder than words,” Parker and Sparhawk sing – their harmonies as clear as a bell amid the pounding beat – their words a plea to realign yourself and fight against the urge to give up in the face of a world of chaos.

With “Disarray,” the purpose of all the chaos and sonic violence present in every song comes into focus: it’s their way of making audible how calamitous the world has become. Our modern nightmare is one so hard to handle, it can’t be captured simply with lyrics – it has to be captured with sounds so forceful and inhuman, they seem like they exist solely to shred everything we hold dear.

This evil spirit, man, it’s bringing me down/ It tells me not to do the things that I should,” they sing in the chorus, in an attempt to explain themselves as best as possible. But then, something miraculous happens: at the end of each chorus, their joint vocalizing seems to blast through the encroaching noise – just for a moment, just long enough to find a moment of peace. It’s only so powerful, as the noise comes back to the fore soon after, threatening to drown them out entirely. After they’re gone, we’re left with the mechanical synth thuds, which begin to fade away as the album ends. How they managed to make that pounding so addicting, it’s hard to know – but as “Disarray” ends, it’s hard to not want to immediately play the whole album again.

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