How does a band follow-up a masterpiece? Because, make no mistake, Low’s 2018 LP, Double Negative, was indeed just that. In fact, it’s one of the finest records produced since the turn of the century and, in the years to come, will be one of the few albums that will be spoken of as a vital, timeless, artistic reference point.
Whilst a reset and most certainly an unexpected one (aesthetically, at least), Low were always leading up to something as referential as Double Negative. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have always gone against the grain in a subconscious, unspoken way.
While their ’90s contemporaries were immersed in grunge and hardcore, Low were producing the kind of laments that pierced the skin and unlocked parts of the soul. Repeatedly. Even while their slowcore contemporaries relied heavily on conventional songwriting methods, Low returned serve by writing something like Do You Know How to Waltz?
They’ve kept us guessing ever since, with the landmark albums, Things We Lost in the Fire (2001), The Great Destroyer (2005), and Drums and Guns (2007). Even their less talked about albums, Trust (2002) and Secret Name (1999), are still as crucial today as they were at the time of their respective releases.
Low have neither played between nor blurred the lines of any styles or genres. Instead, they have created their own world, with only themselves to ever occupy it. That’s why they are the arguably the greatest band on earth.
On HEY WHAT, Low’s thirteen studio long-player, once again, BJ Burton pushes digitised sound to the fearless extreme and Low are only too happy in rising to the challenge.
Burton’s methods sometimes appear on the cusp of absurdity, and while working with the likes of Bon Iver and Charlie XCX, it’s the producer’s alliance with Low that sees both parties immersed in their finest works.
Alongside Burton, Lincolnshire-born artist Peter Liversidge provides the artwork to HEY WHAT. Whilst not as potentially iconic as his Double Negative artwork, Liversidge’s latest creation tells its own story of Low’s anxious, distorted, planet.
The one notable omission on HEY WHAT comes in the way of multi-instrumentalist, Steve Garrington. A vital cog in the Low machine since 2008, Garrington sits this one out and the results are telling, further highlighting just how important his involvement was on Double Negative.
While Double Negative saw Sparkhawk and Parker harness an array of scrambled vocals, scarred guitars and fractured, post-apocalyptic atmospherics, forming a belligerent and frightening snapshot of Trump’s America, on HEY WHAT, whilst absorbed in that same sound world, the disorder shifts slightly. It isn’t so much as dialled down; it’s more like we’ve become trained and accustomed to this latest guise of Low.
The Duluth pioneers still produce sinister, blustery soundscapes that scratch, smudge and fade (More), but on HEY WHAT Burton has brought the vocals forward from the maelstrom of discontent; in particular Sparhawk’s voice, which is no longer tangled and cloaked in the ominous sheets of sound, instead emerging through a red mist (the fantastic lead single, Days Like These).
Again, Sparhawk’s voice sits in front of the serrated noise of opening number, White Horses. A cut that fades out with a creepy, ticking-time-bomb-like noise which slowly disintegrates into a beautiful ambience, bleeding into I Can’t Wait.
On a bedding of bleeps and under-girded drones, I Can’t Wait sees the vocal interplay between Sparhawk and Parker result in a homespun warmth. It’s a song that sees Low pushing their creative boundaries even further. So, too, Disappearing, with steady hums of menace and sinister vibrations that sound like a collaboration with Sunn O))).
The flickering tape loops of Hey sees Parker takes centre stage with a glorious vocal performance. Perhaps it would be the finest moment on HEY WHAT if it wasn’t for Don’t Walk Away.
Crippled with anxiety, Don’t Walk Away is a vexing call to arms that stirs up the same emotions as fan favourite, Sunflower. “I have slept beside you now / For what seems a thousand years / The shadow in your night / The whisper in your ear / So don’t walk away/I cannot take anymore”. It’s not disingenuous to suggest that it’s one of Sparkhaw and Parker’s finest moments as songwriters.
Low sign off with The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off) – a song fit for driving off into the sunset. As Sparhawk and Parker part with the line, “I know it sounds absurd,” while this may be the case when describing The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off) as a ‘driving song’, on the flip-side it is Low we’re talking about here.
So, how does a band follow-up a masterpiece? A brash soul would suggest by making another one. Whether HEY WHAT is that will only be measured by time.
On the whole, it lacks the consistent abrasiveness of Double Negative, however HEY WHAT‘s production is every bit its equal, with Burton adding subtle sparks that lay beneath the surface that require more time to digest. Granted, it has its moments of hypnotic heaviness, but it’s not a constant thread.
Some may see HEY WHAT as a sonically disjointed, flustered presence, but that’s the point. It’s an album tailor-made for these times, with Sparhawk and Parker navigating through the dark prism of worldly cynicism that possesses the same turbulence and tormented beauty of Double Negative. In truth, they’ve always done this, but the stakes seem higher here. That’s when you can count on the best being at their best and on HEY WHAT, Low continue to surprise and deliver.
HEY WHAT is out Friday via Sub Pop. Pre-order from Bandcamp.