The Invisible Way
, April 5th, 2013 09:12
They emerged from Minnesota's club circuit in the early 90s, at a time when grunge was dominant, kicking against expectations by developing a defiantly minimalist sound. So it's no surprise that Low have remained confident enough to stick to their convictions ever since. Once their music was lazily labeled 'slowcore', but defying outside pressures, their continual tonal and textural explorations have repeatedly defied attempts to classify them.
Low's previous album C'Mon had already essentially abandoned the electronic leanings of 2007's Drums & Guns. Their latest LP The Invisible Way strips things back even further, as the newfound prominence of acoustic guitar and piano lends the album a strangely country feel; a sort of extremely bi-polar Americana. Oddly, this alteration nevertheless feels like their career has established an approximately circular trajectory. Dynamically the songs now closer resemble Trust or Secret Name from the turn of the millennium, rather than the experimental sampling of Drums & Guns or the all-out desert rock of The Great Destroyer.
Perhaps the gravity of reaching a two-decade milestone is reflected in the opening track 'Plastic Cup'. Alan Sparhawk recounts a youth of getting high that's deteriorated into the humiliations of growing old with failing health, as "now they make you piss into a plastic cup". It's crass and it's direct but it's real. "The cup will probably be here long after we're gone", lifts these sad, nostalgic reflections, encapsulating the deep-seated human fear of insignificance and the fleeting temporality of our existence.
A real high point is 'Just Make It Stop' - one of the catchiest and most infectious songs ever recorded by the band. However, the biggest anomaly on the LP is penultimate track 'On My Own'. I can't shake the niggling feeling that the chirpy, campfire rhythm during the first half is borrowed heavily from The Beatles' 'Two Of Us'. It's also the only time the band crashes into feedback and distortion. The song then toys with the idea of a coherent electric guitar solo, but instead meanders in dissonance for a bit, before relaxing into a bizarre closing refrain of "happy birthday". Whether or not this is another indirect nod to Lennon and McCartney is unclear.
A sticker on the cover of the album proudly reads "produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy". It's a justifiable selling point, but Low have worked with indie-rock superstar producers before, such as Steve Albini on Secret Name and Things We Lost In The Fire. It's another testament to their power that they largely engulf the presence behind the mixing desk, and Tweedy's presence can only be felt faintly on the record. Admittedly during 'So Blue''s repetitive, incessant beat of keys and vocals, there are subtly-introduced flickers of Wilco-esque electric guitar which offer an exciting climax without overkill, but it never feels like the producer's hand is intruding with Low's inimitable style.
The album's biggest strength lies on songs like 'Amethyst', with characteristically aching and spacious intertwined vocals of Parker and Sparhawk, treading carefully and precisely along. At best Tweedy's soft production compliments and highlights the otherworldly splendour of their harmonies; at worst it's predictably concealed, failing to disguise the more inferior songs and lyrical blankness, leaving behind a fairly mixed bag. It's a record that doesn't undermine their body of work, but nor does it stand out as a career-defining highlight.