When Mimi Parker first thumps her kickdrum in the seemingly endless open space of “(That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace,” against a faintly eerie whistle, you can practically see the dust rising in slow motion, particles flickering in the barest light. The first song on Low‘s 2002 album Trust doesn’t slowly arise from slumber or gradually warm to an incandescent glow like analog tubes, it startles awake, with prickles of mystery and unease. The song partially takes its name from a universally known hymn, but Alan Sparhawk’s lyrics make the implicit darkness of a song typically sung at funerals and makes it explicit: “It sounds like razors in my ears, that bell’s been ringing now for years/Someday I’ll give it all away, that’s how you sing Amazing Grace.” It’s gospel music for the moments when faith feels like its slipping from your grasp.
Trust seldom lightens or brightens from this moment, not the loudest or most abrasive song Low’s ever recorded, but arguably the heaviest. Released between two of the band’s landmark albums—2001’s chillingly beautiful Things We Lost in the Fire and 2005’s gleefully noisy The Great Destroyer—it’s a haunting echo of an album, comprising long passages and tunnels through grief, uncertainty and countless moments of harrowing tension. “I was frustrated a lot at that time, I was writing a lot of songs about dying, and people dying,” Sparhawk told The Quietus in 2021. “I was mentally ill, and mental illness is frustrating.”
After recording Things We Lost in the Fire with Steve Albini nearly two years prior, Low took a different approach with Trust, working at Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld Studios with producer Tchad Blake, best known for recordings with bands such as Crowded House, Los Lobos and Richard Thompson. It also features the unexpected presence of Gerry Buckley from soft-rockers America, who lends his backing vocals to two songs here. Lest anyone mistake that as an implicit suggestion that Trust is soft, it’s anything but—often still, frequently quiet, but rarely soft.
Trust burns with an intensity that feels more ominous than its predecessors, even in the most icily gothic moments of their debut, I Could Live in Hope. These songs lean away from the light with their hands caked in soil. “Canada” rivals “Amazing Grace” in terms of its heaviness, but by a more conventional measure, leaning heavier on the distortion and pounding rhythms that would come to define some of their later albums. Faith comes back into the picture through more bleak imagery on the menacingly still “The Lamb,” in which Sparhawk examines the deaths of Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith (“I am the lamb, I am a dead man“). If one song here rivals “Amazing Grace” for its gracefully devastating power, it’s “John Prine,” similarly heavy in its presence, and simmering with low-key intensity in its grief and anger: “I thought I was a poet, I had so much to say/But now I want to see the blood, I want to make them pay.”
Trust isn’t devoid of light entirely, but with moments of hope and promise bridging an album that comprises their eeriest. The upbeat waltz of “Last Snowstorm of the Year” is arguably the brightest, drawing hope from the promise of a sound that could save your life (“When we were young/We wanted to die/But the sound of a drum/And the words of a child/Brought different light“). Though more melancholy in sound “Time is the Diamond” is built around a simple and profound mantra, sung in gorgeous harmony by Sparhawk and Parker, ostensibly about the necessity of patience in order to arrive upon something beautiful. Which, to be obvious for a second here, is something that applies to Low’s body of work.
In a Rank Your Records feature for Vice, Sparhawk placed the album as his third favorite in their catalog, though he recognizes that it was overshadowed a bit by their prior records. “I think by that point we weren’t doing the same thing over and over, but we were kind of in the same trajectory for a few records,” he said. “I can see how someone would be like, ‘Oh, a new Low record. That’s cool. Whatever.’ That wouldn’t surprise me. There were a lot of records coming out at that time, and we had already released quite a few of our own. I could see why people would like that record a lot and there were some cool things we worked out in the studio.”
Trust was, for the most part, pretty well received at the time, though there were a few critics whose takes on the album could be summarized as “Oh, a new Low record. That’s cool. Whatever.” That’s the inherent problem with having an immediate response to music that takes time to reveal itself, to invite you into its secret, sacred world where fear and vulnerability are allowed to sit with you in discomforting calm. Regardless of some of those shrugs, it ushered in a period of greater visibility for the band, touring with Radiohead in 2003 and playing Madison Square Garden, as well as signing with Sub Pop shortly thereafter, where they’ve remained ever since, up through recent transformational triumphs like Double Negative and HEY WHAT.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Trust wasn’t met with fanfare and fireworks when it was released; it’s an album of frustrated whispers and bare matchstick flame. Trust is Low at their most darkly subtle and evocatively heavy alike. Never deafening, its reverberations still ring like razors in my ears.
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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.