Low

In 2018, the band Low will turn twenty-five. Since 1993, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker—the
married couple whose heaven-and-earth harmonies have always held the band’s center—have
pioneered a subgenre, shrugged off its strictures, recorded a Christmas classic, become a
magnetic onstage force, and emerged as one of music’s most steadfast and vital vehicles for
pulling light from our darkest emotional recesses. But Low will not commemorate its first
quarter-century with mawkish nostalgia or safe runs through songbook favorites. Instead, in
faithfully defiant fashion, Low will release its most brazen, abrasive (and, paradoxically, most
empowering) album ever: Double Negative, an unflinching eleven-song quest through snarling
static and shattering beats that somehow culminates in the brightest pop song of Low’s career.
To make Double Negative, Low reenlisted B.J. Burton, the quietly energetic and adventurous
producer who has made records with James Blake, Sylvan Esso, and The Tallest Man on Earth in
recent years while working as one of the go-to figures at Bon Iver’s home studio, April Base.
Burton recorded Low’s last album, 2015’s Ones and Sixes, at April Base, adding might to many
of its beats and squelch and frisson beneath many of its melodies.
This time, though, Sparhawk, Parker, and bassist Steve Garrington knew they wanted to go
further with Burton and his palette of sounds, to see what someone who is, as Sparhawk puts it,
“a hip-hop guy” could truly do to their music. Rather than obsessively write and rehearse at
home in Duluth, Minnesota, they would often head southeast to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, arriving
with sketches and ideas that they would work on for days with Burton. Band and producer
became collaborative cowriters, building the pieces up and breaking them down and building
them again until their purpose and force felt clear. As the world outside seemed to slide deeper
into instability, Low repeated this process for the better part of two years, pondering the results
during tours and breaks at home. They considered not only how the fragments fit together but
also how, in the United States of 2018, they functioned as statements and salves.
Double Negative is, indeed, a record perfectly and painfully suited for our time. Loud and
contentious and commanding, Low fights for the world by fighting against it. It begins in pure
bedlam, with a beat built from a loop of ruptured noise waging war against the paired voices of
Sparhawk and Parker the moment they begin to sing during the massive “Quorum.” For forty
minutes, they indulge the battle, trying to be heard amid the noisy grain, sometimes winning and
sometimes being tossed toward oblivion.
During the immersive “Dancing and Blood,” Parker slowly comes into focus, as if signing from
the wind-ripped mouth of a cave. Parker appears to beat back disaster for “Fly,” her soulful
vocals curving into and above Garrington’s bold bassline as Sparhawk’s own signal cuts in and
out. Elsewhere, though, songs like “Always Trying to Work It Out” and “Tempest” threaten to
swallow the pair whole, their overwhelming quakes of dissonance aiming to silence them once
and for all. Sometimes, Sparhawk and Parker are stuck in the Sisyphean middle, capable of
neither failing nor forging ahead. During the brilliantly conceived “Poor Sucker,” written in large
part by Garrington, their voices suggest skiffs stuck on some turbulent sea, falling beneath and
rising above the cacophony with seasick irregularity. In this frustrated song of self-defeat, Low
lists all the ways they could have made their lives matter. It is a eulogy of could-have-beens for a
time that won’t really let you be.

As “Rome (Always in the Dark),” a march that forces its way through the din with
damn-the-torpedoes tenacity, fades toward a rare silence, a pulse sculpted from a shard of noise
emerges, flashing from a distance like the safety of a life raft. It rises into a steady thump, with
Sparhawk and Parker floating above it in crystalline unison: “Before it falls into total
disarray/You’ll have to learn to live a different way,” they sing, their melody forming a tightrope
of despair and delight. In some ways, it’s a warning of the bad times to come. But it’s also a
promise that we’re more powerful and adaptable than madness itself, that we have the ability to
persevere. During the song’s back half, Sparhawk and Parker don’t say anything. They instead
lock into august harmony and glide between notes, Parker’s purely ascendant tone pulling
Sparhawk’s falsetto skyward. It is an exquisite and triumphant moment, an exhalation after all
the damage and din.
In spite of the mounting noise, Sparhawk and Parker still sing. Or maybe they sing because of
the noise. For Low, has there ever really been a difference? —Grayson Haver Currin

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