Low review – a hotline to paranoia, discomfort and sorrow

Tramway, Glasgow
The Minnesotan trio blend their recent electronic experimentation into their brutally beautiful aesthetic, offsetting despair with sweetness

It has been hailed by some critics as the masterpiece of Low’s 26-year career, yet 2018’s Double Negative ought to present the Duluth, Minnesota slowcore indie-rock lifers with a dilemma. How will they recreate the sound of their most adventurous record to date – a product of studio-as-instrument experimentation, a harshly textural triumph constructed with dolorous drones, raw static hiss, ragged noise and swirling electronic bass whomps – live in concert?

Unfazed guitarist and vocalist Alan Sparhawk, his drummer and vocalist wife Mimi Parker and bassist Steve Garrington render opener Always Up – the cautiously optimistic centerpiece of Double Negative – with a tender clinch of softly beaten toms, crunching distortion and harmonies so close it’s as if they’re fastened with Velcro. Low have never been a band likely to break out synths, drum pads and sequencers all of a sudden. They blend Double Negative in among their wider oeuvre and aesthetic, performing selections from their previous 11 albums under its brutally beautiful spell. Played out before a seated, pin-drop silent audience in the shadows of a theatre that is scarcely lit, this is a set shrouded in atmosphere. Low get lower.

Softly beaten toms, cruching distortion and close harmonies ... Mimi Parker of Low.
Softly beaten toms, crunching distortion and close harmonies ... Mimi Parker of Low. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns

Doing the work of three guitars at once during Quorum – dense fuzzy chords, brittle melody and swarming feedback – Sparhawk’s effects-swathed playing binds everything throughout. Rocking a Scandi-chic jumper, he’s the kind of guitar anti-hero who carries his instrument on and offstage and doesn’t change it in between. His most garrulous moment as frontman comes amid a funny back-and-forth with Parker, in which they apologise for furtively texting mid-show: it’s -25C back home and they’re checking that their son and their house are OK. “Put a heated fan on your plumbing,” suggests Sparhawk.

Few artists have a hotline to paranoia, discomfort and sorrow such as these restless midwesterners. The hazy sweetness in Sparhawk and Parker’s intuitively interlocking voices is like the life raft to which hope clings in a sea of despair, whether whipped by the winds of the starkly gorgeous Tempest or beating against the monochrome blues of Always Trying to Work It Out. What Low choose to leave out of their rigorously considered arrangements gives power and potency to what they put in. The instrumental passage of Do You Know How to Waltz? – Low’s comparatively understated equivalent of the fabled “holocaust section” in My Bloody Valentine’s You Made Me Realise – is teased out on one guitar string by rapid movements of Sparhawk’s thumb, before rising almost imperceptibly to a crescendo that makes the floor tremble. In such company, the languid melody of Lies is practically a bubblegum pop song.

With vast riches of material to choose from – Double Negative arrives after a run of strong records spanning more than a decade – there’s no obvious place to end, and yet the closing number could scarcely be more perfect. “We’re going to end with something a little more positive,” says Sparhawk. “This is about eternal love.” In Low’s intense and sepulchral world, this means Sunflower, the first track on their 2001 masterpiece Things We Lost in the Fire: a song that starts with the discovery of a loved one’s lifeless body and concludes with an enchanting floral tribute to the night.


Malcolm Jack

The GuardianTramp

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