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Double Negative William Doyle , September 28th, 2018 09:02

A quarter of a century after they founded, Low are back with perhaps the best record of their career

Amid great political, societal and ecological anxiety, there’s an unspoken insistence that the best art speaks directly to that reality. Recent tumult has spawned a litany of works that hold up mirrors to ourselves and our predicament. But it has also, predictably, become a way of marketing art and music as activism – despite the actual content often falling short. Everything now is meant to be empowering, important or commenting on the state of the world. An exhausting number of new records purport to do this.

Double Negative feels different. It’s the sound of an edgeland, of fear and uncertainty, constant distortion of fact, and relentless end-times mania. The tension, disruption and noise of reality in a media-obsessed west that is in constant crisis feels very faithfully portrayed, and its dread is specific and true. In one of the few almost-comically bleak lyrical turns on the album, guitarist and vocalist Alan Sparhawk sings, “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope.”

Low’s discography has often featured gloom and subdued pace, and the close vocal harmonies of Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker have formed the backbone of their sound for years. Electronics have occasionally skirted the edges of their compositions, but now that the technology to marry the organic and electronic has become more sophisticated, Low have made a most ambitious grab to harness its full potential.

The first few songs are among the strongest of their career, and make for one of the most assured album openers of recent times. The tracks are perfectly sequenced, and there are moments of agonising sustain and suspense; in a segue between ‘Dancing And Blood’ and ‘Fly’, a relentless industrial pound gives way to three minutes of vocal drone, before a blessed relief of piano chords sets us free.

Across the album, every instrument has been abstracted almost beyond recognition, and all sounds are in messy conflict with each other. Extremities are stretched out, oscillating between claustrophobic rumble and gleaming beauty. The drop-outs and clicks of the album’s most intense moments are littered with cracks that let light shine through. There are times where every bass drum threatens to swallow the mix whole, but it subsides just in time to allow Sparhawk and Parker’s harmonies, or strums of guitar and synthesizer, to briefly surface for air.

It’s both surprising and refreshing that a band 25 years and 12 albums into their career would be bold enough to wilfully obscure their songwriting with such brazen production; credit to producer BJ Burton for helping to shape that environment. While this pairing successfully widened Low’s sonic remit on their last album, Ones And Sixes, their collective decision to really push beyond that is an utter joy to listen to, even with the darkness that runs through its core. Bands and producers working together don’t usually come up with such wild solutions.

At times, the work of Tim Hecker or Ian William Craig feel like obvious touchstones. But while those artists trade in similar weight and depth – via crackling, glacial surfaces and sub-bass immersions – there’s a different sense of the infinite behind every note on Double Negative. Every decibel feels as though its risen from the abyss just to be audible.

An unexpected consequence of this is that it’s nearly impossible listen to this album anywhere except indoors, using noise-cancelling headphones or very loud speakers, with every window shut, no flicker of outside ambience allowed to penetrate. The songs not only feel like they exist in a vacuum, they demand the listener create one too. It’s a serious album that forces you to experience it as one – it asserts itself as the only thing you can concentrate on.

At the same time, the most effective political music is the kind that allows space for the listener, free of blunt observations or truisms. Double Negative works as a disquieting document of our time because its power lies in nuance and uncertainty. There are no easy answers here – we are left wading through endless murk and crushing darkness, looking for shards of light that slip in through the cracks.