It starts with a shudder – an exhalation of electronic noise, like the moan of a poorly grounded amp. There’s a lurch, a crunch, a seasick squall of feedback. And then Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s vocals swoop in, shadowed by a rasping, electronic beat that builds and builds in intensity. “Only a fool would have had the faith/Though it’s impossible to say I know,” the pair chorus. Just at that moment, the song tips over the line into cacophony before finally abating. The song is called White Horses. It’s the first track from Low’s 13th album Hey What, and it’s one of the most intense pieces of music you’re likely to hear in 2021.
All this, it’s worth reiterating, is quite the turnaround. Low’s early reputation hinged upon them being the quietest band in Christendom. Formed in Duluth, Minnesota in 1993, in the early days they distinguished themselves with a deliberate, hushed take on rock music – dubbed “slowcore” by the critics – that, either by accident or design, felt like a meek corrective to the noisy angst of grunge. Stripped back to little more than a core of minimal guitar and brushed drums, albums such as 1995’s Long Division and the following year’s The Curtain Hits The Cast succeeded thanks to the vocal interplay of Sparhawk and
Parker, a husband-and-wife duo whose solemn choral style felt intrinsically linked to their shared Mormon faith. Quietness became them.
Still, Low have been on the move for a while. The 2005 album The Great Destroyer and 2007’s Drums And Guns, both produced by Dave Fridmann, saw them experiment with a fuller and heavier sound. But 2018’s Double Negative felt like a true rupture. Characterised by its distressed electronic textures, songs clawing through a veil of static or warped like vinyl left out in the hot sun, it felt like a deliberate challenge – to the critics, to the fans, to the world at large. Of course, Uncut voted it the best album of 2018, so you could say that Low very much pulled it off.
Hey What feels like a sequel of sorts to Double Negative, even as it pushes Low’s sound out still further. It’s their third album recorded with producer BJ Burton, who worked with Bon Iver on his transformative 2016 record 22, A Million and in recent years has collaborated with A-listers such as Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. Known for his hands-on, disruptive style, Burton’s role with Low has been to tempt them out of their comfort zone via elaborate production and post-production tricks. He brings the tools – an unconventional hotchpotch of modern and retro kit that includes drum machines and tape decks, plugins and compressors. But Burton doesn’t have a signature sound, as such. Instead, his role is to enhance Low’s space of possibilities, offering up a range of outré and experimental sonic approaches that Sparhawk and Parker have seized upon with both hands.
Listening to Hey What brings to mind a strange and diverse selection of records: the bold experiments in Auto-Tune of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak; the crumbling ambient textures of William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops; the textured dub techno 12-inches of Berlin’s Basic Channel; and, in places, Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks, specifically the way that it vacillates between states of dreamy sentimentality and eerie dread. Listen to Days Like These for a glimpse of Low at their most terrifying and beautiful. Sparhawk’s vocals are yanked to the fore, popping and glitching with electronic distortion. But it’s the moment they fall away that’s really startling, the sudden shocking silence filled by flurries of synth and ethereal vocals that seem to drift on the wind.
Double Negative was written in the shadow of Trump’s ascent to the presidency, and it was easy to read its lyrics as a response to his administration’s venal assault on truth. Hey What feels harder to grasp. Its 10 songs dwell on interpersonal relationships, exploring difficult truths, painful trade-offs and people haunted by their past. Don’t Walk Away and I Can Wait seem to speak to the power of partnership, the ways that couples weather hard times through trust and mutual support. “If I could trade, I would trade/
I would give you a break, and carry the weight,” they sing on the latter. Gorgeous album centrepiece Hey, meanwhile, tells the tale of an emotional breakdown on the road, its angelic vocals cresting in and out of a shimmering, ecstatic ambience in
a way that is gently crushing.
The occasional harshness of texture that defined Double Negative is present here. The rhythmic pulse that runs throughout I Can Wait is the aural equivalent of staring into a flickering strobe light, while There’s A Comma After Still balances holy choral ululations with a whirlwind of electronic noise. More, meanwhile, rides a gigantic rock riff that’s electronically treated to give it a jagged, ferrous feel. “I gave more than what I should have lost/ I paid more than what it would have cost,” Parker seethes, her voice curled into
a tone of bold reproach.
But this brings us to one clear point of difference between Double Negative and Hey What. On its predecessor, Sparhawk and Parker’s vocals were sometimes treated in a way that subsumed them within the music. Here, however, the vocals have been pulled right up front and centre – often soaring powerfully above the distressed sounds beneath, even as they speak a language of fear, doubt and desperation. Double Negative hit hard in part through the sense of its shock of the new. That sense of stark originality hasn’t entirely dissipated, but Hey What adds to it a sense of immediacy, while tracing a continuity with what came before. Listen to tracks such as All Night and The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off) and you can discern a clear umbilical link back to those earliest slowcore records, even as the Low of 2021 forges forth into new sonic vistas.
That Low are still relevant some three decades from their birth is surely down
to their ability to shift with the times. But Hey What succeeds not just because it sounds new but because it captures something authentic and true. Its textures – harsh, bold, sometimes pushed to the brink of disintegration – feel inextricable from the songs themselves, which are honest, troubled and weathering an emotional weight. It marks out Low as one of the few bands since My Bloody Valentine to take the form of rock and
do something that feels genuinely new.
To extend that MBV comparison, if Double Negative was Low’s Isn’t Anything, then Hey What is their Loveless: it represents a further step outside familiar rock convention into a sonic universe that runs to their own laws. It is easy to make music that is difficult and it is easy to make music that is beautiful. But it is quite the trick to be both at the same time, and on Hey What, Low mark themselves out as masters of the art.