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Album review: Low reach a new high with their Double Negative

After 25 years as a band, Low have reached a new high with some of the most challenging music of Low’s career, but also some of the most daring, intriguing, and rewarding.

If you were to make a list of political bands, Low probably wouldn’t rank very high, if at all. Their slow, deliberate, and minimalist songs aren’t exactly the kind of music you’d use to fire up the people and inspire them to protest, storm the gates, and speak truth to power.

In a sense, though, Low’s music has always been a sort of protest. In their early days, it was just against the notion that music has to be loud, fast, and “in your face” to make an impact. When Low first began playing in their and Bob Dylan‘s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, back in the early ’90s, they intentionally played slower and quieter than everyone else, choosing to stand athwart the grunge-obsessed zeitgeist.

But in our current aggressive age of Donald Trump, everything has become political. And so on Double Negative, Low’s protest songs have evolved to speak out against something far more important than the vagaries of musical taste. To these ears, their new album protests a madness that encourages us to accept “alternative facts,” a steady stream of deception from the leader of the free world, and the blatant abdication of moral principles by those who once proclaimed that character matters, to name but a few things.

Some of this comes through in the lyrics. Low’s lyrics have always been starkly abstract and ambiguous, so don’t expect any fiery, Rage Against The Machine-esque diatribes on Double Negative. Low never calls out Trump and his cronies by name, but when they sing “You’ve torn vacant stares/You tried to blame it on the quorum” (“Quorum”), I hear criticism of broken social and political processes.

“Always Trying To Work It Out” suggests a lament of our culture’s breakdown in civility (“I saw you at the grocery store, I know/I should have walked over and said hello”) and in “Disarray,” lines like “Before it falls into total disarray/You’ll have to learn to live a different way” and “The truth is not something that you have not heard” decry the very notion of “alternative facts” and social media-fuelled conspiracy theories.

But most of Low’s protest this time around comes through in their sonics. On the one hand, Double Negative is still unmistakably a Low album. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s inimitable vocal harmonies are still present in some form, as is the same exacting, essentialist approach to composition and arrangement that has defined the band’s music for over two decades. On the other hand, Double Negativefinds the trio deconstructing and even obliterating their minimal sound in a manner reminiscent of Ben Frost, Tim Hecker, and Ian William Craig.

Low’s usual instrumentation — e.g., Sparhawk’s impeccable guitar lines, Parker’s floor tom and cymbal — have been significantly downplayed, and even removed altogether at times. In their place are bruised, decaying, and crushed electronics, layers of glitchy noise and distortion, and vocal samples that are fragmented and distressed almost to the point of unintelligibility, courtesy of producer BJ Burton. Tension and unease flow through Double Negative, a suitable soundtrack for tense and uneasy times. (Part of me thinks of Double Negative as Low’s OK Computer, another album that traded in disquieting sonics and lyrics to confront social unease.)

While the resulting music is unmistakably Low, it paradoxically sounds nothing like them. While folks accustomed to the “traditional” slowcore of I Could Live In Hope and Long Division might be left scratching their heads, it’s quite thrilling to hear a band so willing to blow up the tried and true, to challenge themselves and find new ways to explore their well-defined aesthetic — especially 25 years into their career. In other words, Double Negative contains some of the most challenging music of Low’s career, but also some of the most daring, intriguing, and rewarding.

And yet, because this is Low we’re talking about, none of the deconstruction and demolition mar the fragile beauty that’s at the core of their music. A simple yet affecting guitar line rises to meet Parker’s voice on “Dancing and Blood,” serving as an anchor of sorts amidst the song’s swirling chaos. And speaking of Parker, she gives a devastating performance on “Fly,” singing “Take my weary bones and fly” with a quiet longing that’s punctuated by slabs and slices of electronic noise.

Double Negative closes with the pulsing and strangely uplifting electronics of “Disarray,” with Sparhawk and Parker’s voices melding together, perfectly as always, in a sort of chant. While I wouldn’t call it an optimistic closing, what with the duo singing about an “evil spirit” that “tells me not to do the things that I should,” one doesn’t listen to Low for simple optimism. Even if Double Negative is inspired by the disquiet that permeates our culture, the trio still find beauty in unlikely places. And though the beauty in Low’s music is hard-won and demanding, it always proves worth the effort — something that’s doubly true with this album.

Steve Pafford

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