Everything we thought we knew about Low disintegrated into a haze of digital decay on the band’s breathtaking and tense 2018 album Double Negative. Nearly 25 years after the release of their debut album I Could Live in Hope and a long career spent cultivating sonic depths and intimately atmospheric sounds outside the aggressive forward momentum of rock ‘n’ roll, the Duluth, Minnesota band set any and all expectations ablaze in a distorted and acidic work of dystopian post-industrial art pop. That album found Low attempting to reckon with a bleak post-Trump landscape of violence and anger in the way they best knew how—through gorgeously abrasive exercises in grief and confusion, songs that rarely reach a satisfying sense of closure as they seek to make sense of the ugliness around them. At its core, it felt like a Low record, even as it often sounded like the band’s music had been submerged in a corrosive solution.
Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker haven’t sanded down the rough parts or sharpened edges on follow-up HEY WHAT, and why should they—the world is still terrifying and complicated, but in new and unpredictable ways. As they wrestle with the beauty and brutality of existence, on their BJ Burton-produced new album, the duo further embrace the harshness they introduced on its predecessor. But the maximalism of HEY WHAT leaves more room for brightness and even optimism, its distorted and texturally jagged structures rendered in perfect harmony with the space and possibilities that surround them.
The distressed and mangled noise that opens leadoff track “White Horses” is, if anything, even more cacophonous and disorienting than the static-laden pulse of Double Negative‘s “Quorum.” Within that din arises one of the group’s most beautiful melodies in recent years, Sparhawk and Parker’s vocal harmonies lifting it up into a moment of transcendent post-modern gospel. But it’s in the comfort and guiding light of faith where “White Horses” presents HEY WHAT as being defined by something other than existential despair: “There isn’t much past believing/Only a fool would have a faith/Though it’s impossible to say, I know, still white horses take us home.”
HEY WHAT is less fragmented and ephemeral than its predecessor, even as its sonic palette pushes the envelope further, its sonic treatments presented in forms that feel both supremely weird and unexpectedly moving, sometimes all at once. The final 90 seconds of “White Horses” locks into a sharp series of digital pulses like those of a ticking clock, seemingly making time stand still while imitating its passage. Slowly, gradually, those ticks morph and flutter up into the shoegaze loop sounds of “I Can Wait,” returning to a place that feels warmly mesmerizing. Even when wrestling with evaporating hope and reaching the limits of what we as fragile, fallible beings can endure on “Days Like These” (“When you think you’ve seen everything/You find we’re living in days like these…Always looking for that one sure thing/Oh, you wanted so desperately“), Low still manage to deliver that uncertainty and doubt through an immense noise-gospel triumph.
The other thing about HEY WHAT, though, is that it kind of kicks ass. The stark, more-suggested-than-explosive heaviness that marked some of the band’s best albums has evolved into moments like “More,” a two-minute sludgefeast that juxtaposes Parker’s sweetly mellifluous vocals against a blown-out sludge riff. A similarly satisfying moment of catharsis breaks through on “Disappearing” when a three-chord riff comes crashing in against Sparhawk and Parker’s gaze into an uncertain future: “That disappearing horizon, it brings cold comfort to my soul/An ever-present reminder, the constant face of the unknown.” As stunning as the band’s most delicately beautiful moments have always been, it’s truly satisfying to hear them channel this kind of thunder.
Where the array of harsh sounds on Double Negative initially came as something of a shock, on HEY WHAT, Low wear them like armor as they push forward against the darkness. It’s not a blindly optimistic album, but rather an expression of faith and humanity that seems to acknowledge the journey never really ends. For a band that decried the end of hope just three years ago, HEY WHAT seems to suggest they still live inside of it. It’s remarkable what they’ve done with the place.
Label: Sub Pop
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.