Home Music Holy Hell Holy Hell! Things We Lost in the Fire Turns 20

Holy Hell! Things We Lost in the Fire Turns 20

Things We Lost in the Fire was a pivotal record for Low, stretching the Duluth trio musically and enabling them to reach a wider audience. Emerging from the slowcore scene in the early ‘90s alongside acts such as Codeine and Idaho, Low’s early manifesto was described in a Stone Immaculate press release as being to, “experiment in playing low and slow [and to] annoy alterna-rock audiences.” They had achieved both by the time their fifth album was released in 2001, their hymnal music and incessant touring establishing them as cult favourites.

Their pace of development was as funereal as their music yet by Things We Lost… they were undoubtedly a different band than the one that had released 1994’s ultra-sparse debut I Could Live in Hope. The multiple changes were small, but when combined, they created their most satisfying and fully realised album to date.

The developments included the influence of classic pop, experiments with recording technique, the introduction of more instruments and the anxieties and hopes of new parenthood. These are all significant and interrelated but it’s the former that guitarist and founder member Alan Sparhawk highlighted in a recent interview with Life of the Record.
He recalls listening to a lot of The Beach Boys and The Beatles in the lead up to the album, which seeped into the recording process. It’s far removed from a symphonic release – it was, after all, produced by master of minimalism Steve Albini – but the harmonies and additional instruments point to how they incorporated certain elements of studio innovation.

The change of intention is evident from the opening track, “Sunflower,” which showcases the classic pop influence in its nagging, melodic hook. Its commercial instinct is only partly soured by the first lines resembling the blurb to a thriller: “When they found your body/ Giant Xs on your eyes/ And with your half of the ransom/ You bought some sweet sunflowers/ And gave in to the night.

This new interest in memorable tunes can also be heard on “Whore,” which includes pop-laden fuzz bass alongside a simple, spiritual melody, and the almost joyful “Like A Forest,” on which a piano plinks away and a budget orchestra swirls to a close just as the track starts to get going.

These fuller arrangements were a challenge in themselves, with the band writing the basic songs on guitar, bass and drums and then asking, “What could we do to enhance this? […] Would a keyboard sound cool on this? Or strings or something like that?” They drew on musician friends they trusted to embellish the tracks, including Marc Degliantoni from Soul Coughing on keyboards and sampler. Despite this approach the additional instruments sound fully integrated, often being more of an ambient flourish than a dominant feature.

The band also challenged notions of what they should sound like on a deeper level. Sparhawk remembers writing the post-grunge guitar riff on “Dinosaur Act” and worrying whether drummer and wife Mimi Parker and bassist Zak Sally would like it. The track became a breakthrough hit on alt-rock radio stations but at the time of release it marked a stark contrast with their back catalogue, being notably more discordant and indie-rock oriented.

This rocking sound can also be heard on the second half of “In Metal,” the crunching guitar play coming to dominate later albums such as 2005’s The Great Destroyer. On this release, however, it was still outnumbered by quieter tracks including the barely there “Laser Beam.” The dynamic contrasts across the length of the album – which the band had long had control of within individual tracks – is one of its strengths.

Another of its strengths is the long-term harmonisation between Sparhawk and Parker, with the latter bringing a folk purity and longing to her vocals whereas her husband has rough edged soul. It’s an emotional honesty that comes to bear on the two tracks dealing with the birth of their daughter Hollis Mae.

While many of their tracks are lyrically ambiguous, fan favourite “In Metal” deals directly with the conflicting emotions of new parenthood and wanting to offer extreme protection. It’s an anxiety that’s almost eclipsed by the pop-centric reverb and tambourine as Parker confesses, “Partly hate to see you grow/ And just like your baby shoes/ Wish I could keep your little body/ In metal.” Hollis can be heard happily squealing between lines, making it one of the rare occasions when children being featured on record is not overly sentimental.

A similar direct quality is brought to “Embrace”, on which Parker is backed by little more than an ominous drum and subdued violin. Dealing with the physicality of childbirth, it slowly builds in tension as she emotes, “Pushing my body/ To get that embrace …/ He handed me your head.” It has a sense of unresolved tension that’s also brought to “Whitetail”, on which Sparhawk intones barely more than a dozen words that are heavy with menace (“Closer, closer/ Ever closer”).

Some of the techniques used on Things We Lost in the Fire would be honed on its follow up, 2002’s magnificent Trust (Rough Trade), but crucially it paved the way for the band to widen the definition of their early mission statement without ever losing sight of what made them unique. It found them on the cusp of change in much the same way as their last album, 2018’s highly experimental Double Negative, and it will be intriguing to hear the next step on their slow and steady journey.

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