Low: Double Negative review – the sound of the world unravelling

(Sub Pop)

That title is perhaps a droll, knowing joke. You thought the Duluth trio’s 25 years of slow, minimalist indie rock was gloomy? Well, now it’s doubled down, triple distilled, quadruple concentrated, resulting in the masterpiece that their hugely impressive catalogue has been heading inexorably towards.

Artwork for Double Negative by Low
Artwork for Double Negative by Low Photograph: Record Company Handout

The breakthrough use of drum machine pulses on 2015’s Ones and Sixes has been fully realised, and then some. Aided with visionary production from BJ Burton, the rhythm section is closer to Mika Vainio or Thomas Köner than a rock group: shuddering blooms of static in place of snares, blurred whorls of noise for bass, sounds that are violence itself. The bass impact on Quorum and Always Trying to Work it Out is like an angry father beating a fist on the dinner table, the rest of each song shrinking away from him.

The latter is a highlight, with the fabled husband-and-wife vocals of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker warped downwards to create doo-wop stuck on the wrong side of the 20th century.

Indeed, the erosion of America and our wider ecosystem, and the psychic state of living amid that erosion, is the focus here, enacted in the very music as well as the lyrics. Disarray – a techno ballad that is one of the most purely beautiful things the band have ever written – seems to be about depression, but the line “the truth is not something that you have not heard”, using the double negative of the title, evokes the bewildered headspace of Trump’s rhetoric and the “fake news” era. Sparhawk admits “Everybody says that the war is over / but it isn’t something you forget so easy” – the band having previously confronted the Iraq conflict on Drums and Guns (2007) – and that martial mindset seeps into other songs. With Bee Gees harmonies on Fly, Parker has to “keep my body like a soldier”, while on the exceptional Poor Sucker the thuggish threats stack up: “Gonna give it to you fast / gonna give it to you straight … Gonna leave you in the dark / at the bottom of a lake.”

And yet there are moments of levity: Parker’s bell-clear assertion of “I believe, I believe …” on Always Up is like a green shoot in scorched earth. Sparhawk has a more hedonistic response: “Let’s turn this thing up before they take us out,” he hollers on the blues-rock stomper Rome (Always in the Dark), but acknowledges on Dancing and Fire that any bacchanal is “more let it out than let it go”.

Across the album, there’s a trudging, incantatory tone that feels almost pagan, like the last rites of a nation – even the planet – are being read out. This ranks alongside the likes of Anselm Kiefer and Cormac McCarthy as a document of contemporary social collapse, and as such is the most important, devastating album of the year.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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