Treble 100: No. 54, Low – Double Negative

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Low Double Negative Treble 100

It’s supposed to sound that way.

The bubbling hiss of noise on “Quorum,” surging and undulating, obscured in ebbing waves of corrosive distortion, with Alan Sparhawk’s own voice lost in the hiss and wheeze but somehow still remaining afloat despite its savage undertow—it’s all by design. But it’s only natural to assume otherwise, its gently merciful melody only starting to congeal more than a minute into Low‘s submersion via caustic solution, the big picture only becoming clear once you’ve experienced it in full. But at first, it seems as if something’s not quite right, like the speakers have blown or lost connection, or maybe just too much dust gathering on the stylus.

It also sounds nothing like the Low you know—the sweetly serene harmonies of Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, and the spaciously subtle arrangements that defined their earlier recordings have been scrubbed with steel wool and filtered through glitching electronics. Then again, Low made a career out of defying expectations of what a rock record is meant to sound like. Like Galaxie 500’s On Fire five years earlier and the Velvet Underground’s self-titled album 20 years before that, Low’s debut album I Could Live In Hope left an impact by barely leaving a footprint. Its BPMs stay well within double-digit range, its dBs just a hair past a whisper. They didn’t invent the so-called “slowcore” sound (see above), but they became synonymous with it, making somber, wintry lullabies their brand during the distortion-saturated ’90s. With some of their early material echoing the shadows of early records by The Cure, like Seventeen Seconds and Faith, Low’s music didn’t always sound gentle or comforting, but it did sound intimate—a perhaps unintentional but essential byproduct of being helmed by Sparhawk and Parker, who weren’t just musical partners but an actual married couple.

Low don’t have access to any more answers than the rest of us do, they’re simply, to borrow one of their own phrases here, “trying to work it out.”

This purity of concept in the early records by the Duluth, Minnesota band meant that evolution mostly happened gradually and through subtle shifts, but the changes were noticeable all the same. You could hear them grow heavier in 2001’s “Dinosaur Act” or “(That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace,” the opening dirge from 2002’s stunning Trust. You could hear them grow noisier on 2005’s “Monkey,” or more rhythmic on 2007’s “Breaker.” But through each permutation they remained, essentially, Low.

None of which provided any kind of context for an album like Double Negative. Written and recorded as Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, Low’s twelfth album is captured in a state of shock. At once chaotic and insular, Double Negative is built on discomfort and contradiction. These aren’t clever protest slogans or calls to action, but rather unfinished thoughts and internal monologues dispatched from a life and a society that seems to grow more unforgiving with the passage of time. They’re less about elections or politics than they are anxiety-ridden explorations of what it means and what it takes to retain both your soul and your sanity amid an epidemic of hate and animosity. Low don’t have access to any more answers than the rest of us do, they’re simply, to borrow one of their own phrases here, “trying to work it out.”

In doing so, the band nearly cast aside any semblance of familiarity or comfort. The disorientation and doubt that Sparhawk and Parker express without any easily resolutions finds a fitting parallel in the music’s strange blend of ambience and abrasion. Working with producer B.J. Burton, who’d previously collaborated with and produced music by Bon Iver, Low boldly walk into the unknown, crafting an honest but alien work whose only tether to their past work is the unmistakable but often obscured voices of Sparhawk and Parker themselves.

Though the voices at the center of the album are the most literal human elements of Double Negative, its aim of working through unresolved worry and panic through sandpaper smooth experimental pop compositions yields a work of feeling as much as concept. At the time of its 2018 release, it received frequent comparisons to Radiohead’s Kid A, but Low’s sharp transition feels even more radical and even stranger in execution. As “Quorum” segues into “Dancing and Blood,” its percussive crackle remains as gothic guitar arpeggios lap up against its eroding beat patterns. “Tempest” builds up a dense wave of unintelligible distortion harboring an aching melody underneath, while “Dancing and Fire” strips it all back to stark, skeletal repetitions of guitar—the rare moment here that feels anything like Low as we once recognized them. Yet for as many elements are stripped away, damaged or completely recontextualized, “Rome (Always in the Dark)” is the odd song that takes a maximalist turn, its heavy lurch reminiscent of the sludgy shoegaze of Jesu.

But about those voices: More often than not they’re indecipherable, distant, coated in noise. When you can make out actual words, they end in ellipses, replaced by competing thoughts in the same way our brains shuffle from one source of worry to another on a sleepless night. On the occasions in which they form a complete thought, Sparhawk and Parker’s voices only echo a kind of universal feeling of panic; “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope” goes the most memorable line of “Dancing and Fire,” nodding to the title of their debut with a delayed and pessimistic response. It’s only in closing track “Disarray” that Low offer anything that feels definitive or even optimistic, if you can call it that. Their voices harmonized against a strobing array of indefinable distorted sound, Sparhawk and Parker offer a series of affirmations, like “Before it falls into disarray/You have to learn to live in a different way” and “The truth is not something that you have not heard.” These aren’t words of comfort necessarily, but they’re reassuring all the same, offering a reminder that whatever comes can be weathered, and that the tools needed to do so are already at our disposal if we can find the means to access them. Having a pair of compassionate, if effects-altered, voices telling us they feel the same and that they’re going through it, too, might well be one of them.

The group’s follow-up, 2021’s HEY WHAT, proved this approach wasn’t a one-off, as that album’s cacophonous dirges and anthems—occasionally veering toward noise rock and doom metal—only echoed the harsher textures of its predecessor. Yet where that album found Low slowly making their way back to the context of pop songwriting, Double Negative often avoided the familiar in favor of a cathartic run headlong into the wilderness. For those of us who’ve felt a similar lack of direction or even ability to concentrate as we see the flames of cruelty continually fanned and sponsored by those with the loudest megaphones, there’s a certain therapy in hearing those feelings echoed through some of the most beautifully broken songs of our time.

HEY WHAT, sadly, became the group’s final album, as Parker died of ovarian cancer just 13 months after its release, at the age of 55. I had seen them perform a stunning live set in Washington, D.C. that March and ended up seeing the devastating news just eight months later in the very same city, and reading that headline hurt more than I ever could have imagined. Even at their weirdest and most agitated, the music of Low always felt like a source of healing, in no small part because of Parker’s heavenly vocal tones. There is no Low without Parker, who co-founded the band and who, with Sparhawk, built both a life and a sound.

But even on a more immediate level, without their two voices singing in delicate harmony, it just wouldn’t sound like Low.

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