Album Of The Week: Low Double Negative
These days, there is a constant and seemingly endless supply of new music at our fingertips. If you work as music journalist, you get thousands of emails a day alerting you to impending releases or sending you dozens of albums months away from entering the world. You can never sift through it all, but you explore as much as you can, figuring out where everything fits together. There are often surprises, not just in albums dropping out of the sky but in the gratification of an artist you’ve long loved and supported coming out of left field with a stunning new sound or leveling up to the next tier of success and notoriety. There is always something to react to, and in the ever-changing music landscape of today, it often feels like our job to try and make all the scattered pieces cohere into something legible.
But every now and then, you come across an album that is truly startling. An album that seems to completely exist outside of any specific time and place, an album for which you have no exact frame of reference. These go beyond the albums you weren’t expecting, the ones that forge ahead in ways that take a couple listens to wrap your head around. These are albums that present as enigmas, the music therein some unholy and awe-inspiring shock to the system that can remain inscrutable for months (or years) after you’ve first come into contact with it. These are albums that operate in their own dimension, the music tapping into something eternal and unsettling and hypnotic.
It’s been just about three months since I first listened to Low’s new album Double Negative, and I’m still striving to make sense of it. In their 25 years as a band — primarily built on the partnership between Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, though joined in this decade by bassist Steve Garrington — Low has built up one of the more formidable and quietly diverse catalogs in indie. And yet, there is still little that would’ve prepared us for Double Negative in their past work. It’s one of their strangest and most beautiful albums, and it’s one of the strangest and most beautiful albums of the year. It’s not just an outlier for Low. It doesn’t sound like almost anything else out there.
For Double Negative, Low once more teamed up with the producer B.J. Burton, who they’d previously partnered with for their last album, 2015’s Ones And Sixes. Burton has been steadily and subtly making a name for himself in recent years, working on forward-thinking music from James Blake and Bon Iver. But the work he did with Low for Ones And Sixes feels like barely a hint or prologue to the near-total transformation that occurs on Double Negative. In the context of Low’s own career, perhaps the clearest antecedent is their 2007 release Drums And Guns, a stark and uneasy document issued from the closing chapter of the Bush years. That album was itself a shock upon arrival, but it almost feels quaint compared to the territory Low ventures into on Double Negative.
Burton’s biggest claim to fame is probably the co-writing and production credits he had on 22, A Million. There’s an easy temptation to draw a line from that 2016 release to Double Negative, both of them sharing a penchant for mutated depictions of humanity by way of technological overload and heavily processed or warped vocals, both of them balancing puzzles and gorgeous payoffs.
Perhaps 22, A Million does act as one antecedent to Double Negative. But the new Low album really feels as if it exists in an unconnected lineage of albums from the past couple years, albums that felt less like “new music” and more like New Music. The ancient yet space-age textures of David Bowie’s Blackstar, the yawning chasms of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree, the ethereal orchestrations of Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool — these were all albums that collided sounds in unforeseen and singular ways, then used that alien and foreign music to create works steeped in a very real sense of mortality. Out of any of them, Skeleton Tree feels like a fitting comparison point for the way Cave and his band drew just enough within the lines to stop short of a completely avant-garde release, and yet often abandoned traditional structures and arrangements. Similarly, Double Negative unfolds over expanses of distortion and ambience and manipulated electronics to depict a free-fall into despair.
In the initial press release for Double Negative, the album was touted as Low’s “most brazen, abrasive” work ever. And it can be challenging, certainly, but “abrasive” isn’t quite the right term for it. Even in its darkest moments — the haunting masterpiece “Dancing And Blood,” or the ghost litany of “Poor Sucker” — it has an intoxicating beauty to it. It’s disconcertingly pretty in the way some terrifying images can be disconcertingly pretty, like the vivid colors in an all-consuming wildfire, or the lacerations that particularly vicious storms cut across the sky. Even then, Double Negative rarely sounds violent. Instead, it captures the moments immediately after sweeping destruction, playing out like fragile, wounded, desperate prayers whispered amidst desolation.
Low introduced Double Negative with the opening triptych of “Quorum,” “Dancing And Blood,” and “Fly.” The three do work perfectly as a trilogy, and in turn as an intro to Double Negative. “Quorum” greets you with churning waves of static, Sparhawk and Parker’s vocals drifting in out of focus as they’re carried on the ebb and flow of those currents. It immediately draws you in to the specific world of Double Negative, briefly suggesting a resolution before its swallowed back into the noise and the dread-inducing thrum of the intro to “Dancing And Blood.”
If there’s a song that encapsulates everything Double Negative is capable of doing to you, it’s “Dancing And Blood.” That throb sounds like a heartbeat quickening in fear, and the song that unfolds from there is abstract yet precise. Parker echoes in like a specter, while the music feels as if you’re hearing it from a speeding car, or from underwater. This is what much of Double Negative is like, showing you recognizable imagery but obscuring it, making you reach to connect with the voice lost on the other end while one of you is drowning. For a brief moment, it’s possible, when Parker finally proclaims the song’s title and the low-lying but relentless throb of “Dancing And Blood” is answered by a weathered guitar figure. Eventually, Parker disappears into wordless refrains and the song dissipates entirely into a prolonged ambient outro.
“Fly” emerges out of that. It’s one of the more straightforward tracks on the album, which is really saying something considering it sounds as if it takes place — fittingly enough — high in the air. An ascension out of “Quorum” and “Dancing And Blood,” “Fly” is where Low corral gentle winds to try and ameliorate the effects left by the song’s predecessors. “Fly” is still plenty disquieting, but it sets up the fractured brightness that pokes through the rest of Double Negative, fighting to burst out entirely.
These polarities play out across the album. Right after “Fly,” you fall right back down into the corroded thunder of “Tempest,” a sonic experiment that functions like Low and Burton took a song and smeared it near the point of obliteration. In moments like these, it’s as if you’re witnessing songs attempt to come into being only to be blocked by walls of altered noise. Elsewhere, Double Negative continues to follow the droning outro of “Dancing And Blood” into more diffuse destinations, amorphous ambient passages or elegies from the void like “Always Up” and “The Son, The Sun.” By the end, some semblance of clarity emerges, if only because the vocals and guitars hold their own more often, even when faced by the roiling aesthetic of “Poor Sucker” or the mechanistic dinosaur guitars of “Rome.”
Moments like that almost suggest that Low brought a handful of songs to Burton and let him break them apart, rearrange them, maneuver them towards impressionism. Instead, the band shed their meticulousness and repeatedly met with Burton with just sketches in hand; Burton in turn became a full-fledged collaborator in the gestation of Double Negative. That makes the album all the more striking. It’s one thing to imagine Double Negative as the result of fairly standard (albeit rather bleak) Low songs ripped to pieces then painted together with their own blood. But that’s not how it happened: Low and Burton built this thing up from fragments and atmospheres along the way. That makes Double Negative even harder to comprehend, the prospect of four people really tapping into something beyond us, conjuring this thing out of the ether.
The first time I listened to Double Negative — or really, the first many times — all of that was too much to take in. It was, from the very start, clearly accomplished, enveloping. But it also felt like a cursed object imbued with mysterious and unnerving power, something you keep trying to look away from, but can’t. It was gorgeous, but in a poisonous way; you could feel a bodily and psychological reaction to this album that doesn’t allow you to interact with the world around you in any kind of normal way afterwards. It was transfixing, an object you kept trying to put away and yet whose allure kept pulling you back over and over.
Along the way, I listened to Double Negative in a whole range of settings. I listened on subway rides, with construction zone lights flickering through the windows and overhead announcements puncturing those ambient sections of the album; they always arrived just in time, like Low had designed the album for daily detritus to fold into its DNA seamlessly. I listened to the album on airplanes, turbulence matching the oscillating noise of “Quorum” and the seasick “Always Trying To Work It Out,” the rush of wind and shuttering old metal adding one more layer of obfuscation to an album already full of it. I listened to it on stiflingly humid Nashville nights while walking empty streets lined with skeletal new constructions still in process. I listened to it on nascent autumnal nights in New York, wet chill and hazy rain mirroring the way so much of Double Negative feels as if its creeping up from within you as much as it’s assaulting you from all sides.
The reason I’m recalling these moments is that Double Negative seems to be intended for, seems to unfold, both everywhere and nowhere. In all those months spent trying to reckon with it, those arrangements grew no less disorienting. The severity with which it swings between claustrophobia and expansive wastelands that invite the invasion of incidental noise around you amplifies the sense that the album emerges out of some deeper recesses. As it comes in and out of view, you can occasionally find it sliding back into the environment around you.
Double Negative sounds nothing like normal life, and yet it molds itself into your routines, and reflects experiences back at you, in the way that a distorted image reveals truths you couldn’t find before. There are glimpses of the quotidian within Double Negative, but rendered with monolithic horror — Sparhawk’s gaping mewl as he delivers lyrics about running into someone at a grocery store in the beginning of “Always Trying To Work It Out,” or the somehow unsettling image of a man dancing alone in the inky shadows of the accompanying video for “Dancing And Blood.” Moments of humanity appear everywhere, like Low is trying to penetrate clouds of interference to communicate with the listener.
All of that isn’t just an attempt to capture the elusive qualities of Double Negative’s music and how it reorients your mind as you’re listening to it. There is meaning in it; that is, the album’s entire meaning is in it.
Remember around the time of Trump’s election, that flurry of somewhat-misguided assertions that this era would produce great art? As 2018 draws to a close, we’re really in the zone where we’re getting music and other creative endeavors that do feel born out of the time we’re living in. At the end of 2016, the death and consequence that ran through Blackstar and Skeleton Tree felt prescient. Two years later, we’re now in it. Just as Drums And Guns once summed up the fury and disenchantment of the Bush years, the agony and sorrow of Double Negative is inextricable from today.
“It’s not the end/ It’s just the end of hope,” Sparhawk sings at the beginning of “Dancing And Fire” by way of introducing Double Negative’s final act. Double Negative is an album that very much feels born of 2018, a reflection of these precipitous times. It’s the sound of Low angry at the universe, struggling and often defeated by the onslaught of daily life, by the onslaught of the broken transmissions that crowd out the voices across Double Negative. In an era where the promise of apocalypse is never far from the headlines, it’s easy to take dispiriting lyrics and moments from Double Negative like that opening to “Dancing And Fire” at face value. Sparhawk declares the death of hope, and Double Negative provides the soundtrack for the end times.
The addendum to the claim that Double Negative is Low’s most “brazen, abrasive” album was that it was also “paradoxically, [their] most empowering.” It’s hard to hear that on the first listen; it’s hard to hear that on the 20th listen. But it’s there. Hope might be a distant prospect on Double Negative, but there are hints of it. That fractured brightness in “Fly”? That reappears as much as the album’s more toxic qualities, eventually culminating in the epilogue of “Disarray,” the strained chance of transcendence that closes the album.
There is no resolution on Double Negative. The album offers no easy answers. But it takes beautiful things and destroys them, and it takes ugly things and renders them celestial. All of the confusion, and disgust, and broken-down communication, and fear of the late 2010s — Double Negative captures that. Yet however distant it might be, it also shares glimmers of a sunrise somewhere on the horizon.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Noname’s highly-anticipated, as-yet-unheard official debut Room 25.
• Dilly Dally’s damaged-yet-triumphant Heaven.
• Aphex Twin’s Collapse EP.
• Richard Thompson’s wizened but urgent folk-rocker 13 Rivers.
• Guerilla Toss’ third album in as many years, the colorful and idiosyncratic pop explosion Twisted Crystal.
• Emma Ruth Rundle’s mystic, stormy On Dark Horses.
• The Goon Sax’s hooky, old-school indie sophomore LP We’re Not Talking.
• Fred Thomas’ weathered trilogy conclusion Aftering.
• Harmony Rockets’ guitar sojourn team-up with Nels Cline, Peter Walker, and Steve Shelley, Lachesis/Clotho/Atropos.
• Slothrust’s crunchy, ’90s-indebted fourth album The Pact.
• Black Belt Eagle Scout’s identity-exploring debut reissue Mother Of My Children.
• Lonely Parade’s scuzzy, nervy The Pits.
• The Spirit Of The Beehive’s dreamy-then-wired Hypnic Jerks.
• We Were Promised Jetpacks’ reliably surging Scottish-indie rocker The More I Sleep The Less I Dream.
• Jungle’s long-awaited return For Ever.
• 6lack’s sophomore effort East Atlanta Love Letter.
• Hawkwind’s album of orchestral reworks (with an Eric Clapton guest appearance), Road To Utopia.
• Paul Weller’s 14th solo collection, True Meanings.
• The Chills’s characteristically jangly and earnest Snow Bound.
• Thrice’s Epitaph debut, Palms.
• The Sleaford Mods’s self-titled EP.
• Petrol Girls’ The Future Is Dark EP.
• Liza Anne’s Dreams EP.