Low sit squarely in a liminal space.
There’s something incorporeal about the way husband and wife duo Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker meander through song structures, sonics, and melodies. Take a look through their back catalog and you’ll find templates rich with harmony and space. From the bare, open instrumentation of their 1994 debut to the more conventional, piano-driven sound of 2013’s The Invisible Way, Low has shifted their landscapes gracefully through their 25-year career.
If anything, their slow-burning, minimal aesthetic has proven that what’s missing is just as impactful as what is placed in the arrangement. It’s a tension that has served them well, and although Low hasn’t quite obtained household name status, the band has consistently tinkered away, gaining praises from big names like Robert Plant (who recorded a version of Low’s “Monkey” and “Silver Rider”), Jeff Tweedy, and Radiohead. The strength of their songwriting has proven that while the window dressing may change, the band remains steadfast in their plaintive, often understated vision of music’s possibilities.
This is certainly true on their latest release, Double Negative. Taking a vast stylistic departure from their early work, the record finds the band expanding upon their proven melodic template, distilling the songs to sound like decompositions and corrupted twists of their more resplendent past. It finds the band aiming for a pointed, visceral reaction and lived-in rebuke to the troubles that plague our minds.
What results is something akin to playing an old, decaying Super 8 film real of childhood memories — it may feel familiar and comforting, but the details seem just out of of reach, leaving you feeling like something’s amiss. The warped, deconstructed sound is as dumbfounding as it is a captivating, hypnotic affair amidst a rubble of noise.
This is no small feat, especially for a band this seasoned. Yes, much of this work can be read as an erosion of our current societal norms and surviving overexposure to disheartening headlines and intimations of apocalyptic settings, but there’s a sense of brightness buried throughout Double Negative if you look hard enough.
All of the songs crackle, distort, break, rebuild, expand and imbue restoration — a counteract to the disillusionment we are living with daily. Even if your favorite sweater is frayed and on the verge of disrepair, it feels secure and capable of shielding you from the world that is thrashing violently every day. As Sparhawk and Parker sing on Dancing and Fire: “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope.”
Those damages may permeate and take their toll, but within this duo’s melodies, peace is rendered as an attempt to find the sliver of light that emerges through the shades each morning. There’s a duality here: finding enough energy to emerge with grace while recognizing the paralysis that comes with despondency. This dedication to explore what it means to hold on amongst the degradation has rejuvenated the band in a way that feels novel, even prescient.
This urgency was totally encapsulated at the band’s sold-out show at Great American Music Hall. Playing in front of three paneled strobe lighting structures, the band fully embedded themselves deep in distortion. The shadowed band was a stark contrast to the often blinding stage lights, creating a dissonance that forced audience members to solely focus on the wave of sound and lights. About halfway through the set, between songs “Do You Know How to Waltz” and “Lazy,” Low delved into an extended exploration of electronic and white noise. In this moment, and throughout much of the show, audience members had noticeable, visceral moments of solitude — many of them with eyes closed — fully bathing in Low’s commanding and soothing presence.
Even at their most eerie droning, Sparhawk and Parker’s intertwined harmonies hover about the synthetic debris beautifully. “Before it falls into total disarray, you’ll have to learn to live a different way,” the two beckon album and show closer “Disarray,” before cascading into a dazzling wordless chorus, pushing through a cloud of smoke to a night sky full of stars.
Low might dabble in the knowledge that we are all haunted, smoldering piles of what came before, but all it takes are the right conditions to spark something new and transcendent. Sometimes, you just have to fight through the static. Low are searching to help us find a way out.