Low have always been outliers. When the duo of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker first emerged in the early ’90s, grunge was the dominant strain of popular rock music, and fuzzed-out guitars were in vogue. Meanwhile, here were a couple of soft-spoken Mormons from Duluth, Minnesota, a husband and wife, making slow, quiet songs with sparse instrumentation and abundant negative space. Their approach began almost as a joke — What would happen if you played as slowly and quietly as possible to crowds of amped-up alt-rock kids? “We were being pretty contrary,” Sparhawk told Pitchfork in a recent interview. “We always thrived off that.”
Still, nothing could’ve prepared anyone for 2018’s Double Negative. A late-career masterpiece that found the band once again teaming up with producer BJ Burton, who had co-produced their 2015 album Ones And Sixes and worked on Bon Iver’s willfully experimental 22, A Million, Double Negative didn’t sound like anything that Low had ever done, or anything that anyone had ever done. Together, Low and Burton corroded their patient slowcore melodies with digital distortion and decay, rendering the distinction between signal and noise utterly irrelevant. It felt strikingly new and urgently modern, beautiful and terrible, the only rational artistic response to the chaos, confusion, and degradation of truth of the Trump era.
After Double Negative, nothing that Low did could possibly be as unexpected and shocking. Instead of another radical left turn, then, their new album HEY WHAT is a sequel, a deepening and a refinement of the alien new language they’ve developed in collaboration with Burton, who returns as producer. “Well, OK, we’ve blown the doors off and found this new vocabulary,” Sparhawk says. “Now what do we do with it?” The opening track on the album, “White Horses,” begins with what sounds like heavy machinery whirring to life, or an industrial metal band sound-checking in the next room, or maybe just your speakers breaking, before the short bursts of static cohere into an actual rhythmic groove and Sparhawk and Parker’s voices join in heavenly harmony: “The consequences of leaving/ Would be more cruel if I should stay/ Though it’s impossible to say, I know/ Still white horses take us home.”
That’s the key difference between Double Negative and HEY WHAT, apparent right from the start. Where Double Negative often treated Sparhawk and Parker’s voices as just one more element to deconstruct, submerging them beneath the bubbling murk, they never stray from their rightful place in the spotlight on HEY WHAT. Even echoing into abstraction at the climax of “Hey” or pushing past their breaking point on “Days Like These,” there’s a crispness and an immediacy to the vocal melodies here — voices at the front of the mix, startlingly clear, almost always in perfect harmony. While Double Negative occasionally felt less like an album and more like some monolithic artifact of unknown origin, HEY WHAT, for all its experimentation, feels more like a collection of discrete songs that can actually be sung.
America’s political landscape may be different this time around, but between the ongoing reckoning with our country’s institutional racism and police violence, the pandemic, and the climate crisis, things have hardly gotten better since Double Negative came out. If that record scanned as a direct response to the Trump administration’s assault on decency, though, it’s harder to pinpoint the overarching theme that animates HEY WHAT. Where “Days Like These” might feel like a Grand Statement About Our Times — “Y’know you’re never gonna feel complete/ No, you’re never gonna be released/ Maybe never even see, believe/ That’s why we’re living in days like these again” — a song like “Don’t Walk Away” feels more like an intensely personal portrait of a long-lasting marriage. “I have slept beside you now/ For what seems a thousand years,” Sparhawk and Parker sing, as if to each other, the music behind them stretched like taffy into an abstracted lullaby. “The shadow in your night, the whisper in your ear/ So don’t walk away, I cannot take any more/ Why this game, I cannot play any more.”
There’s still plenty of trauma, both sonic and psychic, to go around. The opening barrage of “White Horses” isn’t the only moment that’ll have you checking to see if your headphones are malfunctioning. The largely instrumental “There’s A Comma After Still” is the band at their most experimental, with rippling waves of distortion gradually giving way to wordless vocals, while the central over-driven guitar riff that cuts through “More” might be the straight-up heaviest they’ve ever sounded. “I gave more than what I should have lost/ I paid more than what it would have cost/ You have some of what I could have had/ I want all of what I didn’t have,” Parker howls. And the heaving oceans of noise on “Hey,” the record’s quasi-title track, soundtracks the story of an emotional breakdown: “Hey, we didn’t get past Michigan and Lake before we found ourselves beneath the weight (hey)/ Told me that I never could contain/ Went back and wept in the car beneath the shade (hey).”
But if Low seem just as unsettled now as they were three years ago, their response to the creeping dread of modern existence feels different. Where Double Negative was all unrelenting despair — “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope,” they once intoned — HEY WHAT feels faintly… hopeful? “That disappearing horizon, it brings cold comfort to my soul/ An ever-present reminder, the constant face of the unknown unknown,” Sparhawk and Parker sing on “Disappearing,” facing the uncertainty of the future with, if not optimism, at least a stoic resolve. “There isn’t much past believin’/ Only a fool would have the faith/ Though it’s impossible to say, I know/ Still white horses take us home,” they insist on “White Horses,” defiantly maintaining faith in the sneering face of impossibility.
Low have never been shy about their religious faith, and their music has often been compared to various forms of sacred music, hymns and dirges alike. But that influence feels more pronounced than ever on HEY WHAT, their omnipresent choral vocals shining like hopeful beacons in the dark and illuminating the noise-blasted soundscapes as a new kind of post-modern gospel. Even at the record’s harshest, Sparhawk and Parker’s conjoined voices offer solace. And when those, too, inevitably fade away into instrumental passages — as they so often do on these songs — the resulting washes of celestial sound feel soothing rather than pulverizing. Even in the endless void, Low seem to suggest, there is beauty.
HEY WHAT ends where it begins: The digital whines and thrumming distortion on closing track “The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)” coalesce into an honest-to-god drumbeat, one of the few recognizable instruments on the entire record, before ultimately fading back into static. But like all the best albums, HEY WHAT is a transformative experience. Listening to it changes you, and the silence on the other side feels fundamentally different. The world might be broken, and so might we all, but Low keep on straining towards transcendence. Remarkably, nearly 30 years into their career, they seem to have achieved it yet again.
HEY WHAT is out 9/10 via Sub Pop Records. Pre-order it here.
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