Low: Hey What review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week

(Sub Pop)
The veteran group continue the scorched digital manipulations of 2018 masterpiece Double Negative, but their vocals are left pristine and beautiful

Low seemed a singular band from the outset. They were a married, practising Mormon couple, devoted to playing as quietly and slowly as possible, in the teeth of the early 90s grunge era. In fact, Low stood out so much that people felt obliged to invent a new subgenre to describe what they were doing: slowcore. It was a label the band disliked and quickly outgrew; it turned out they could move at quite a clip when it suited them.

Then, 25 years into their career, Low became more singular still. Their sound had always shifted and changed, occasionally in unpredictable directions, and electronic percussion had crept into 2015’s Ones and Sixes. But nothing could quite prepare listeners for 2018’s Double Negative, which took the kind of studio processes commonplace in modern mainstream pop – pitchshifted vocals, digital manipulation, the sidechain compression that causes the rhythm tracks on pop-dance hits to punch through everything else – cranked all of them up to 11 and applied them to a rock band. The end result was an album that genuinely sounded like nothing else. Low weren’t the only alt-rock artists thinking along roughly similar lines – Double Negative was produced by BJ Burton, who had worked on Bon Iver’s technology-fractured 22, A Million – but the sheer extremity with which the band’s sound was altered shifted Double Negative into a category of its own.

Moreover, it was released 18 months into the Trump presidency, as his campaign managers were jailed for fraud, and Rudy Giuliani informed NBC that “truth isn’t truth”. Its lyrics seldom addressed American politics – dealing instead with everything from Mormon attitudes to same-sex marriage to mental health – but its short-circuiting bursts of unidentifiable sound, warped vocals and overwhelming mood of dread still seemed to fit the moment, feeling like a transmission from a country disastrously on the fritz, “dissolved into a state of awful inverse” as its closing track put it.

Album of the year acclaim duly followed, but the shock of Double Negative also seemed to raise concerns for the band who’d made it. It sounded like music literally pushed to the limit, and once you’ve pushed everything to the limit, the question of where you go next becomes pressing. Happily, that’s a query that Hey What answers perfectly by refining and adapting its predecessor’s sound.

The first thing you hear on opener White Horses is a guitar transformed into a kind of heaving, stuttering moan, followed by a rhythm track made up of crunching digital distortion. The latter sound might once have been produced by a guitar, but it’s impossible to say for certain. The song ends with an unadorned minute and a half of its unflinching pulse, which speeds up and becomes the basis of the second track, I Can Wait. Next, when you encounter the spongy sonic textures of All Night – you eventually give up trying to work out what instrument was originally involved – it’s hard not to be struck by the thought that on anyone else’s album, this might constitute the weirdest track; on Hey What, it feels like a kind of breather, before you’re plunged into the increasingly scourging soundworld of Disappearing.

Low: Hey What album cover.
Low: Hey What album cover. Photograph: Publicity image

Notice is thus served that Low are not interested in dialling down Double Negative’s confrontational experimental edge, but that isn’t the whole story. Hey What is also a far more melodically driven album than its predecessor. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s beautiful harmony vocals are largely unadorned with processing, and are louder, which seems to give the songs – or at least the listener – a little more space to breathe.

This chimes with the tone of the album, which couldn’t be characterised as optimistic, but at least hits a note of stoicism. The strength of Sparhawk and Parker’s partnership as bulwark against the former’s struggle with depression informs Don’t Walk Away and The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off). The lyrics of Days Like These consider the world lurching from crisis to crisis, but there’s something really stirring about the melody, which strides through the backing’s explosions of frazzled sound, while the extended instrumental coda feels calm and resolved. At other points, juxtaposition of the voices and the music is more unsettling: Hey boasts the album’s loveliest tune, but it’s set against a backing that keeps changing from delicate, flickering ambience to something far darker and creepier. Stranger still, in its own peculiar way, Hey What rocks, not least on the fantastic More, based around a riff that seems equal parts Led Zeppelin and My Bloody Valentine, if you squint.

A lot of bands have been compared to My Bloody Valentine over the years, largely because they were trying desperately to sound like them. Low really aren’t, but they feel an appropriate name to raise nevertheless. The music Low are currently making carries a similar, head-turning, where-the-hell-did-this-come-from air to Isn’t Anything and Loveless; as with those albums, the people behind Hey What are redefining how a rock band can sound. It says something – about Low and about rock music – that you have to delve back 30 years to find something with those qualities.

* * *

What Alexis listened to this week

Tokimonsta and Channel Tres: Naked

Disco-infused pop, but Naked feels deeper than that: there’s something off-beam and sinister about the strings, and a sense of unease amid the dancefloor beats.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Arca: Kick ii, iii, iiii, iiiii review | Alexis Petridis's albums of the week
Four new albums of extravagantly warped electronics offer listeners a lot to take in – and her most pop-focused music to date

Alexis Petridis

03, Dec, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Black Midi: Hellfire review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
From cocktail-lounge piano to thrashing drums, the British prog band make musical handbrake turns that are thrilling but hard to love

Alexis Petridis

14, Jul, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Daniel Avery: Ultra Truth review – a perfectly balanced cocktail of euphoria and disquiet
Introspective and propulsive, intense and opaque: these instrumentals tie the disparate strands of the producer’s oeuvre into a coherent, compelling whole

Alexis Petridis

03, Nov, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Nova Twins: Supernova review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
The genre-splicing pair’s sharp, concise songwriting makes for a mindblowing blast of distorted noise-pop – and destroys the narrative about who gets to make rock music

Alexis Petridis

16, Jun, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Jane Weaver: Flock review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Having earned a cult audience for her psychedelia, Weaver makes her version of a pop record, where Kylie-level hooks are set against hallucinatory backings

Alexis Petridis

04, Mar, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Grimes: Miss Anthropocene review – a toxicity report on modern celebrity
Notionally a concept album about the goddess of climate crisis, the Canadian’s fifth album is actually a compellingly chaotic statement about her own private life

Alexis Petridis

20, Feb, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
Gorillaz: Cracker Island review – smaller, subtler, and better for it
Damon Albarn has reined in the excess – though there are still cameos from the likes of Bad Bunny and Stevie Nicks – for a trim album that is one of the band’s best

Alexis Petridis

23, Feb, 2023 @12:00 PM

Article image
Romy: Mid Air review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Expertly produced with Jamie xx, Fred Again and Stuart Price, Romy Madley Croft’s debut solo album tops off vivid house and trance tunes with pop smarts and personal lyrics

Alexis Petridis

31, Aug, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
Let’s Eat Grandma: Two Ribbons review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Written amid grief and separation, the duo’s third album uses beautiful melodies and Top 40 choruses to consider their evolving bond

Alexis Petridis

28, Apr, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
Katie Gately: Fawn/Brute review – beguilingly disordered pop
A third album whips up a maelstrom of dislocated voices and junkyard-style percussion as the US musician plots a trajectory from her daughter’s imagined childhood to adolescence

Jazz Monroe

31, Mar, 2023 @8:00 AM