Low’s Double Negative album prompted us to embark on a very personal journey in pursuit of brilliance.
There’s nothing like going on a road trip in pursuit of your favourite bands.
Having been brought up in a small town where seeing a band meant at least a five hour one way journey, the only option was to save all of your holidays and dot them around the bands you wished to see throughout the year. Essentially, they were journeys to kick against the throws of cultural starvation.
Having spent years doing these road trips across Australia via trains, planes and, of course, automobiles, as the years rolled on these pastimes receded somewhat. The old adage of life getting in the way and, when that happens, live music is seemingly at the top of the queue to sacrifice.
In hindsight, youthful exuberance does diminish where spending time with your favourite bands seemed more enjoyable within the confines of your own listening space. In layman’s terms you get older and become a lazy bastard. On the flipside, travelling anywhere between ten and twenty hour round trips for live music does catch up with you eventually both psychically and, of course, financially.
Low have always been among my favourite bands.
They’ve always been the jeans that fit nicely, in between those 32s which look a bit shit and the 30s which are too tight. In football terms, they are the James Milner. The no-nonsense steadyhand that can always be relied upon. Every team needs a Milner as much as every record collection needs a Low.
Sometimes this tag has posed as Low‘s Achilles heel, too.
Admittedly The Invisible Way was a disappointment, a band going through the motions, almost trawling the waters of errrm (cue the projectiles)… dad rock…! Not one of Jeff Tweedy‘s finer moments from behind the sound boards as producer it has to be said.
One’s and Sixes was far better and had some great moments but against Low‘s previous belters? Hmm, I’m not so sure. Which begged the question – were they cooked? A veteran thoroughbred put to roam freely in the pastures?
As they say, and – again – advanced apologies for another football analogy, but form is temporary and class is permanent, thus Low defiantly answered the aforementioned question with an emphatic no.
When bands that are held closest to your heart fail to produce the required standard then you examine the work more closely and judge it harshly. Like your loved ones, often the first to bear the brunt of your wrath.
So, where are we going with roadtrips and Low, you ask? Well, how about Brighton!?
When the opportunity arose to get on a train and head down from Lime Street to Brighton in search of Alan Sparkhawk, Mimi Parker and Steve Garrington to perform on the back of Low‘s career defining long-player, Double Negative, it was a no-brainer and if anything, took me back to the days of taking planes to see Interpol or ten hour train journeys in pursuit of Sonic Youth.
With its paranoid dissonance and forever scarred instrumentation, like all stone-cold classics, Double Negative grabs you by the scruff of the neck with unbridled aggression and demands your undivided attention. Low travels that extra mile with Double Negative by dragging you into the deep dark vortex where it was conceived, keeping you there almost as prisoner under lock and key.
Never before could you mention Low and aggression in the same sentence but with Double Negative this is very much the case. It’s an album that could only be conceived out of exhausted and dissipated times.
While there has always been an argument whether punk is a sound or an attitude, politics in music can now boast the same argument thanks to Low‘s Double Negative.
Few opuses have the hallmarks of a politically sounding album. Godspeed You! Black Emperor may have something to say about that but with their intermittent sound bites (look no further than Blaise Bailey Finnegan III), politics has always run close to the Godspeed DNA.
To further blow this argument wide open, if those who think punk is attitude, then perhaps it’s worth debating that Double Negative can be defined as a punk album, as odd as that sounds. It’s worth serious discourse, at the very least.
Double Negative is a subtly snide serving of chamber rock where the origins of rock ‘n’ roll, pop, and drone music swell and burst in one of the most prevalent political statements in the more recent times.
A ferocious coalition of searing crackles, metallic scrapes and unremitting paranoia, Double Negative encapsulates the murky snapshot of today. The snapshot where society’s moral compass has faded almost into nonexistence, to the point where hope is all but lost as we navigate this new dark age. A new world dystopia.
Double Negative‘s artwork by UK artist, Peter Liversidge, tells a story in itself. A decayed hollow-eyed black keystone smack bang in front of the striking simplicity of a light pink with which you associate when closing your eyes with your face pointed towards the sun. There’s a post-apocalyptic theme at play here, which provides the ideal correlation to the music itself. I may be way off the mark, but with art it’s always open to interpretation and that’s mine, at least.
Then there’s the production. BJ Burton garnered acclaim with his recording techniques with Bon Iver‘s 22, A Million; but where opinions are concerned (again, get your projectiles ready), there’s a fine line between ambitious and insipid and sadly, for mine, Bon Iver fell in the latter category and by association, rightly or wrongly, Burton probably wore some of that criticism, too.
Burton first worked with Low on Ones and Sixes and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s not the greatest surprise that there are flecks of sonic fairy dust that find a way across the Double Negative canvass. The only surprise is just how ground-breaking the results truly are.
Together, Sparhawk and Burton almost go full circle, not only with the album’s shuddering mass of sound, throwing Low‘s sonic blueprint against the brick wall, picking it up and tossing it into the butcher’s mincer:
Sparhawk‘s approach is even more distinct than usual due to the liberal use of Auto-Tune, which is another clear influence from Burton. It’s a method that, in my opinion, was overtly frowned upon for many years.
Kurt Wagner altered my view on Auto-Tune. If not emphatically, then his efforts on Lambchop‘s FLOTUS certainly demonstrated the merits in a less-is-more fashion. While Low rely on this method more often than not on Double Negative, it’s overwhelming evidence that Auto-Tune can work with the greatest of results.
Bassist, Steve Garrington, arrives on Double Negative. While Sparhawk and Parker have always been Low‘s driving force, Garrington‘s virtuoso comes to the fore on Double Negative, emerging from the shadows. In many ways this album wouldn’t be what it is without his presence and is easily his greatest accomplishment, transcending the work of his predecessors, Zak Sally, John Nichols, and Matt Livingston, respectively.
The opening notes of album opener, Quorum, provide good insight to what Low‘s audience are about the engage in. The sonic deterioration akin to a crumbling cliff-face followed by a slow creeping hum and Sparhawk‘s distinct vocal.
‘Quorum’s not the reason/Selfish interest/You’ve got to break the quorum.’
The opening organ note of Always Up wets the corners of your eyes every time. It’s a tender requiem where Sparhawk showcases some of his greatest work as a frontman yet. So, too, Parker, with her angel-like harmonies and an act of defiance singing “I believe/ I believe/I believe”. It’s a song that entwines the ‘old’ Low with the new.
Always Trying to Work It Out is vintage Low, scarred by flanged sound corrosion courtesy of Burton‘s mastery. The protagonist sees someone in a grocery store and regrets going to say hello. It’s the locality through their subjects which draws listeners in and with Always Trying To Work It Out, Low capture the essence of what they truly are as a band. Profoundly street level.
Hailing from the Midwest (Duluth, Minnesota), there’s a friendliness with Sparhawk, Parker, and Garrington and having met Sparhawk and Garrington before, this is certainly the case. There’s no showy egotism you sometimes find with bands from bigger cities around the world.
Disarray, the album’s first single, closes the album in yet another bold statement. Not only for its position within the album’s track listing but thematically, it encapsulates the whole album with its morose outlook into the world’s current landscape.
While certain tracks like Quorum and the brooding undercurrents of Dancing and Blood portray a messaging primarily through their sound, Disarray‘s message is more overt in the traditional lyrical sense with Sparkhawk and Parker sharing the reins on this occasion as they guide us down the road into a hazy nihilistic future.
With Double Negative, Low continue to project a rampant ability to tug at your heartstrings. They’ve always been an inward band but where Low deliver is in their capacity to imbue equal fervour by outwardly portraying an emotional snapshot of the current social and political landscape through their sound. Not many albums have the ability to do that.
Now, it’s time to see how this masterpiece will unravel in a live sense.
Having announced earlier in the week that they would be doing an in-store at the very fine Resident Records, it’s the perfect curtain-raiser.
Around 100 people gather around the shop floor amid a swathe of vinyl, as Sparhawk, Parker and Garrington causally amble from behind the counter with instruments in tow and wedge themselves between the electronic and jazz sections. They then proceed to perform a stirring five song set.
After opening with Plastic Cup then followed by Always Trying to Work It Out, Sparhawk says, “We hear it’s forecast snow later on.”
The band then eases into one of my personal favourites from the band’s most underrated albums in Trust – Last Snowstorm of the Year. A very rare occasion that the song is played, which made the queue outside Resident in the mind numbingly cold temperatures all the more worth it. Murderer and Disarray round out the intimate set.
From Resident it’s a good twenty minute trek across town to Brighton’s St George’s Church. It’s a space not too big but not too small, either, possessing high ceilings for Low’s beautiful noise to travel, reach and drift from front to back. A fitting milieu for a band of Low‘s aesthetic.
And they don’t disappoint. The band enters stage in front of three rectangular light props which project soft interchanging colours throughout the set.
Always Up is delivered in a more stripped back manner, the organs on record replaced by a manic rustle. Quorum follows and is a sprawling sequence of atmospheric drone. It wouldn’t look out of place on an Earth album, if truth be told.
No Comprende, Plastic Cup and The Innocents follow, which is a nice selection of the finest tracks from Low‘s past two albums.
With Double Negative born and finding its way through the world, Low are able to incorporate the downright bowel twitching rumble of noise that is Do You Know How to Waltz – the finest cut from their brilliant The Curtain Hits the Cast LP. In the past this track may have seemed clunky and out of place in the Low live pantheon, but here it feels as if it actually underpins the set, almost like it has a new meaning even after all those years since its release.
Lazy is a lovely foil for ‘Waltz, as Low continue to guide us down memory lane of their frighteningly immense body-of-work.
More Double Negative tracks get the A-list treatment. The sinister Dancing and Blood, the street-level delight of Always Trying to Work it Out, the tear jerking Poor Sucker. They are all sonically skewed in comparison with their guise on record, but still work marvellously here.
Fly seems like a totally different animal in the live surrounding, a shining beacon courtesy of Parker‘s majestic beguiling vocal. Along with the maelstrom of bleakness that is Dancing in Fire, these are the two tracks from Double Negative that cut through even deeper after tonight.
Then there’s Disarray. Its swelling drone pouring out to the crowd with manic rage and uncertainty. It encapsulates everything about Low circa 2019.
After a short break, the band returns to the stage where they deliver fan favourite, Sunflower. Like the preceding seventeen tracks – it sounds inch perfect and caps off a stunning evening. One where you envisage the idea of something and hope that that idea exceeds your expectations. It does. Vigorously.
Low are a different animal now. Whilst Sparhawk has always possessed good banter with his audience, with Double Negative it sees the band enter a slightly new onstage persona. They are an elusively hazardous creature, embracing a shadowy artistic aloofness that solidifies the linage of their latest conception
committed to tape. Slightly barbed but still profoundly immersive.
Low‘s performance is almost an out-of-body experience and in context, not unlike the feeling one has when they’ve witnessed seeing the latest incarnation of Michael Gira‘s Swans. It’s like being transported into an alternative universe not wanting to leave or part with that feeling of being enveloped into something truly mind-altering. That’s the power of live music and art when captured perfectly.
Not enough bands posses the fortitude to differentiate their live and on record aesthetic, but Low do whilst still maintaining their mesmeric spirit, oscillating between gentle and bristling waves of sound.
Most may not agree with the aforementioned assertion regarding Double Negative and its forging of politics and sound. If you fail to agree on that view, then perhaps a stronger argument is this. No other album made in recent times has crystallised the state of the world we currently inhabit better than Double Negative. As they say, timing is everything and where bands such as Idles and Sleaford Mods have succinctly unravelled the political climate through the written word, Low have conquered through the transparency of sound.
Life changing moments need life changing albums for me Double Negative is very much that. It’s an album that will stand the test of time. As a band, so will Low.