Photo: Zoran Orlic
Low.  Photo: Zoran Orlic

In 1994-95 I had a job that required me to spend a lot of time in the office alone on evenings and weekends. There was a cool indie music store just down the street, so those many solo hours were accompanied by a soundtrack that included tons of newly discovered artists and albums, including I Could Live In Hope, Low’s haunting, mesmeric, and arrestingly beautiful debut.

For many critics and casual listeners, that first album permanently cemented an impression of Low as quiet, plodding, and somniferous – “slowcore” and “sadcore” were a couple early categorizations. In reality, though, there was an interesting dynamic tension lying just below the seemingly gentle and melancholy surface of many of the songs. Superficially, I Could Live In Hope draws its beauty from a fairly muted palette of musical hues – a landscape captured in the fading light of dusk rather than the full sun of midday – but there are moments, such as when the guitars build to a noisy jangle toward the end of “Cut” and “Lullaby”, that hint at something more complex simmering just below the music’s equable exterior.

Over a career spanning more than 20 years, Low has been increasingly willing to bring those complexities to the surface. Their first few albums gradually evolved the initial blueprint to encompass elements that were starker (the stifled guitar guiding most of “Turn”), stranger (the drifting drone of “Will The Night”), noisier (the tangled, distorted crescendo of “Do You Know How To Waltz?”), crunchier (the heavy, driving guitar of “Canada”) and poppier (the handclaps and “la la la” chorus of “La La La Song”). But it was on their sixth album, The Great Destroyer, where the band showed an eagerness to cast aside expectations and embrace dramatically new styles and sounds. Although the entrancing harmonies of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker left no doubt that it was Low, the album revealed an energetic, rocking, and experimental side of the band we hadn’t seen before (and, as a result, it was somewhat divisive among long-time fans). They followed that up with the spare, gritty, loop-driven Drums and Guns, which was disquieting, occasionally menacing, and darkly magnetic. C’Mon and The Invisible Way dialed back on the experimentation, updating the classic Low sound of earlier works.

My first thought after listening to Low’s magnificent eleventh album, Ones and Sixes (out now on Sub Pop), was that in many ways it feels like a synthesis and summation of everything the band has been doing for 20 years – not like old hacks who’ve run out of steam and are left to regurgitate old ideas…more like great students who ace a year-end exam by demonstrating a full mastery of the subject.  Over the course of its 12 songs, the album is quiet, loud, gentle, assertive, somber, bright, electronic, organic, warm, cool, distorted, crisp, programmed, freeform, claustrophobic, and spacious. It’s also a wonderful showcase for Sparhawk and Parker’s songwriting and singing. Lyrically, the album spends much of its time exploring of the complexities and nuances of personal relationships and the many ways people communicate and miscommunicate, negotiate, stick together and fall apart:

  • “It doesn’t have to end this way, but this is where we’ll stay.” (“Gentle”)
  • “You know you didn’t understand me. I didn’t say it was a problem. Before you start to make assumptions, let’s try to cut to the solution.” (“No Comprende”)
  • “Everything always confusion, things I could never explain.” (“Spanish Translation”)
  • “The implication is its own device in the middle of a salient fight.” (“Congregation”)
  • “I couldn’t wait to come back through to you. I thought I had so much to prove… untrue.” (“No End”)
  • “I can’t explain the slowing of my brain, the underlying vein that flows right into you.” (“Into You”)
  • “Talking, talking, and pleading all night, must be some way to reach the other side.” (“What Part Of Me”)
  • “To begin with there’s the two of us, never minding the world.” (“The Innocents”)
  • “Why don’t you tell me what you really want, instead of making up the same old lies? […] I should be sleeping by your lonely side instead of working on this song all night.” (“Lies”)
  • “Look at us now, broken like teeth, torn at the mouth, losing our feet.” (“Landslide”)
  • “It’s not what you say, it’s what you take back.” (“DJ”)

Because the band’s core duo have been husband and wife and touring bandmates for 20 years – a situation bound to be fraught with interpersonal challenges – it’s tempting to read the lyrics as autobiographical, and some may be, but they’re not overly personalized, so the sentiments are universal.

The sonic variety they display across Ones and Sixes – with the help of bassist Steve Garrington – is paired with some of Parker and Sparhawk’s most powerful and versatile vocal performances.  Whether it’s the effortlessly harmonic interplay of their duets, the poignant counterpoint of backing vocals, or their solo turns, each artist shows us a broad range of styles and emotions. Parker, in particular, has some real standout moments that for me are among the album’s highlights. The first half of album opener “Gentle” has Sparhawk’s voice in the forefront, with Parker adding an ethereal backdrop. But in its second half, Parker takes over with a hypnotically compelling vocal line that floats over deep, plunging bass notes and a thread of buzzing distortion. In “Into You”, she accompanies herself, delivering a warmly gorgeous lead and then adding graceful accents that pull it heavenward.

Photo: Zoran Orlic
Low.  Photo: Zoran Orlic

The most memorable vocal passage is in “Lies”. Like, “Gentle”, the song starts with Sparhawk leading and Parker supporting, but then he hands her the reins during the second half of the song and she takes the spotlight with a surprising force. It’s probably the only time I’ve ever been tempted to write about her “belting out” a vocal. It’s still Mimi Parker, so it’s a gentle belt, but each time I listen to the song, I hear echoes of powerful moments from classic pop-rock icons like Linda Ronstadt and Carole King.

Ones and Sixes really has something for everyone who has ever been a Low fan… If you love their gentler songs, there’s “Into You”; if you’d prefer some musically and lyrically darker fare, you’ve got “No Comprende”; if you were intrigued by the loops and noises of Drums and Guns, check out “Gentle”; if you want a slowly building epic with some noisy guitar work, try “Landslide”; and if you like to hear them explore their catchier, more-upbeat side, give a listen to “No End”. If I were pressed to find something critical to say about the album, I guess I’d suggest that at 57 minutes it’s maybe one song too long. And If I had to choose a track for omission, I’d offer up “Kid In A Corner”, which, for me, is the one piece that doesn’t fit in seamlessly with the whole. It’s not a bad song…it just lacks the impact of the other eleven. But it’s a minor misstep at worst.

This is such a strong album that it’s tempting to predict that it may one day be looked back on as the band’s career apex, but that would be assuming they’ve got nowhere to go from here but down.  So instead I’ll call it one of their best works so far and look forward to seeing where their journey takes them next.

phil locke