People are running out of superlatives when talking about Low’s latest and hey, you know what, we agree because it’s pretty… pretty…. pretty good.
Since 2007’s Drums and Guns slowcore pioneers Low have been tinkering with their sonics. Alan Sparhawk however at first did not succeed to develop his experiments into a new sound so he looked for a helping hand which he found in Bon Iver associate B.J. Burton. With Burton behind the mixing table for the first time on One and Sixes (2015) Low’s sound became slightly rougher but essentially did not move away from the well known sweet-tempered side of the band. On the following Double Negative (2018) Burton fully took over the reins and pointed Low into a surprising new direction full of pure sonical dread. For most of us longtime Low listeners it took some time to realize that the band reached a new creative height which potentially is a late-career masterpiece. Of course it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions about the latter, especially with HEY WHAT making a widespread impact among the press at this very moment.
Because Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker prolonged their collaboration with Burton, HEY WHAT is directly related to Double Negative. The Minnesotans thirteenth full album can not be understood if you haven’t heard 2018’s predecessor, which in essence was a disorienting story about the deeply scorched American socio-political landscape. Low’s first noise-heavy album shifted between a refined construct-deconstruct scheme and left no room for any sweet-temperedness. On HEY WHAT’s opening song, White Horses, the band starts from the same dark place that they left us in. White Horses builds around an urgent pulses of static that expand into broader dark textures that we know from Double Negative. The big difference here is that Sparhawk’s and Parker’s harmonic singing sounds recognizably warm again. Both seem to pull off the dark cloak that has defined them the past few years. Still we are left in suspense as dark synths keep looming in the background. Near the ending of the song the synths morph into the sound of a clockwork that nervously keeps ticking for about 90 seconds. The clockwork leads in I Can Wait which feels like the first true sign of resolve. This first step into the light brings back Low’s heavenly elegance and also serves as a bridge to All Night. The performance here is vintage but is slowly crumbled down by a relentless layer of building distortion. Sparhawk and Parker’s social criticism is out in the open once again. The change of power in the US does not mean that we’re in the clear. Darkness is still tenaciously present in the background and it’s ready to strike back at any moment.
HEY WHAT unfolds a struggle of rays of light that try to push through the vast despair that was brought to us on Double Negative. Hey is one of HEY WHAT’s strongest rays of light. In nearly eight-minutes we hear how Low’s angelic side pushes back the threatening low synths. Halfway through we’re into complete ambience, feeling safe and sound. Truly spellbinding stuff that made us forget that there is still a half album in front of us. Days Like These is on its own not the best Low song, but is important to the album because it heralds the gradual return of more distortion. On There’s a Comma After Still heavy static further shatters the dreamlike state of before and things get twisted as vocals are cut-up on Don’t Walk Away. It’s Mini Parker who in a final attempt tries to place a darkness-ending dagger by vigorously battling with an overpowered guitar riff. Alas, in the end the riff shatters her epic voice. Suddenly we find ourselves back in the centre of Double Negative territory. And now we’re there The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off) as the ultimate seven minute wrap up. From tranquil beginnings the track progresses into a scary industrial structure that finally collapses under its own weight. Assuming this final statement means that we’re doomed, Low’s next album to complete a triptych (if aiming for one) should carry the title NOW WHAT.
So in the end darkness prevails. Luckily, if you look at our moniker, that’s also just the way we like our music. Where Double Negative is a coherent monolith made from despair, this is a more balanced work. As an album it’s a more diverse listen. The dark estrangement that binded Double Negative into something unique now has to share the stage as the main antagonist. The latest Low therefore offers a more balanced listen and will make it more relatable for people lost their interest. Still, we think it can only be understood to the fullest if you appreciate 2018’s predecessor. If you don’t we recommend steering clear of this one. But if you did, this album is a mandatory pick up at your local record store.
Label: Sub Pop, 2021
Buy it here: https://www.subpop.com/releases/low/hey_what
- White Horses (5:03)
- I Can Wait (4:02)
- All Night (5:14)
- Disappearing (3:32)
- Hey (7:41)
- Days Like These (5:20)
- There’s a Comma After Still (1:51)
- Don’t Walk Away (4:07)
- More (2:10)
- The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off) (7:08)
Review by Wander Meulemans // 110821