The 50 best albums of 2018, No 9: Low – Double Negative

The best album of the Duluth band’s career sounds familiarly glacial and hymn-like – but recorded all wrong. It’s the sound of the world collapsing

This year was filled with music that attempted to reflect the times. So much so that it felt faintly exhausting: it was hard to avoid the sense that artists felt impelled to comment on The Age We Live In whether or not they had anything interesting or original to say about it. But no other woke pop or explicit evisceration of Trump’s America sums up how 2018 frequently felt quite as well as Low’s Double Negative, an album that says very little directly about the state of things.

Low: Double Negative … album artwork
Low: Double Negative … album artwork Photograph: no credit

The lyrics are oblique throughout – particularly given some of frontman Alan Sparhawk’s more colourful onstage pronouncements about the US president – but the music seems to short-circuit and collapse in on itself, with nothing working the way it apparently was supposed to. Opening track Quorum is produced in a way that makes it seem as though your listening device is on the fritz, the beautiful vocals repeatedly cutting out, the backing track consumed by crackling, fizzing noise. Tempest, meanwhile, is so distorted that it sounds like a vinyl record being played by a stylus caked in fluff and detritus.

Elsewhere, it’s marked by a sense of the familiar being snatched away. Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s distinctive harmony vocals are regularly twisted and warped until they’re incomprehensible: just another alien, disquieting noise on an album filled with disquieting noises. Always Trying to Work It Out is a song that might have appeared on one of the Minnesota trio’s earlier albums – glacial, hymn-like, built around an echoing guitar, the duo’s voices at their chilling best – but it is recorded all wrong. The funeral bass drum thuds so loud in the mix that it drowns out everything else. After three minutes, the song vanishes, overwhelmed by static.

Low: Dancing and Blood – video

There are occasional flashes of anger – as on Poor Sucker’s brutal depiction of a reactionary mindset in which the overriding aim is to make people you disagree with suffer – and even optimism. But the overwhelming mood of Double Negative is one of despairing unease. It sounds haunted and rattled by the feeling that things have not only changed much for the worse – “a state of awful inverse,” as Disarray puts it – but have perhaps changed irrevocably, “a spark of everything you’ve ever known, incinerated in a light of gold”.

Moreover, in a world of predictable political music, it seems unprecedented. That’s partly because you don’t expect a band to make their masterpiece 25 years into their career, the point where many artists are coasting on their legacies, appealing strictly to their diehard fans. But it’s mostly because, for all the vague precursors you could throw its way – from My Bloody Valentine to Radiohead’s Kid A – Double Negative didn’t sound like anything else, in Low’s back catalogue or beyond.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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