Album review

Low - The Invisible Way

Low - The Invisible Way

More raw beauty from the Duluth veterans, heightened by lashings of piano and Jeff Tweedy...

According to their singer and guitarist Alan Sparhawk, Low decided to ask Jeff Tweedy to produce their tenth album after visiting Wilco’s Chicago recording complex, The Loft, and hearing tracks from the forthcoming Mavis Staples album. Sparhawk remembers the sound he heard that day as “simple, raw and intimate”, and there are far worse ways to describe The Invisible Way. Anchored in a unifying stillness and sonic simplicity which, even by Low’s austere standards, errs toward the spartan, in its own quiet way it’s as confrontational as anything the Duluth trio have ever done.

Since their 1994 debut I Could Live In Hope, Low – Sparhawk, his wife Mimi Parker and, latterly, bassist Steve Garrington – have made a powerful weapon out of fervent understatement, but during that time there have been several exploratory detours. For all that it largely conformed to the band’s slow-burning ethos, their last album, 2011’s C’Mon, had relatively plush accoutrements: keyboards, lap steel, strings, banjo, guest vocalists. Its predecessor, meanwhile, 2007’s glitchy Drums And Guns, was Low at their most scattered, overloaded and oblique. Six years on, Sparhawk describes that record as an “experiment in having no direction”.

The Invisible Way travels to the other extreme. This is a tight-knit collection of songs exploring varying shades of silence. Rather than a retreat back to first principles, the sparseness feels like a new destination in itself, as though they’ve had to work and work to finally find the conviction to let this amount of space inform their music. It brings its own drama. The lowering “Amethyst”, dark and thick as molasses, is barely there at all, but is far from inert; the air around these songs thrums with tension.

It’s hard to think of any Low album that has floated quite so far above specifics of time or place. Although some of The Invisible Way resembles past works – particularly the more hushed corners of C’Mon, such as “$20” or “Done” – it contains barely any hint of the band’s formative post-rock or slowcore aesthetic, nor of the kind of twinkling prettiness of something like “Try To Sleep”. The textures here are classic and overwhelmingly organic. Electric guitars are largely absent, save for a smattering of silvery shards and stately baritone twangs. “On My Own” is the album’s sole instance of the weather turning truly squally, and even that begins with a soft spring in its step before breaking down midway through into a lurching blizzard of angry, overloaded guitars. The only other things that could be considered vaguely flighty are “Just Make It Stop”, a pounding, Spector-meets-VU almost-pop song, and “So Blue”, one of those Low tracks which employs rigorous repetition to spiral towards a thrumming climax, pounding up and up over a Mo Tuckeresque primal heartbeat and resounding piano chords.

In such a carefully calibrated sonic landscape the slightest of touches make a real impact; the amount of piano on the record is certainly significant. It is used not to provide prettifying background colour but as a deep, dramatically percussive counterpoint to songs such as “Waiting”, where whole seconds pass between each booming note while Parker and Sparhawk sing about suicide and promise that “the truth can hide sometimes right behind the sorrow”. Like “Just Make It Stop” – with its tumbling hysteria and lines about being “close to the edge/at the end of my rope” – it’s the sort of Low song that makes you fleetingly fear for both the state of their minds and the state of their marriage.

The fact that Parker sings five of 11 tracks (as opposed to the usual one or two) is The Invisible Way’s other obvious point of departure, and one of its great strengths. There are shades of Patti Smith at her purest on the stunning “Holy Ghost”, perhaps the closest Low have ever come to down-the-line country-gospel, which suits a lyric where religious fervour burns slow. On “So Blue” and “Four Score” she adds ghostly harmony, high and sweet, to her own lead vocal, to mesmerising affect.

Lyrically these songs tends towards the impressionistic, stubbornly resisting any overly literal interpretations. A notable exception is “Plastic Cup”, where the titular vessel is used to collect a sample during a drug test and then, a thousand years later, is unearthed and awarded great significance by a future civilisation who declare it the “cup the King held every night as he cried”. This is history depicted as one long absurdist essay in misunderstanding.

Elsewhere there are several customary intimations of faith. Both Sparhawk and Parker are Mormons, and “Four Score” – beyond its title, with its Biblical intimations – has the quiet, dignified weight of an old hymn where many are “lost and forsaken, but none forgotten”. On “Mother”, a gently undulating nursery rhyme, Sparhawk moves from the deeply personal – “you thought I’d be a daughter but didn’t mind” – to an imagined day of universal resurrection “when every child and mother will return”. Sung beautifully by Parker, the closing “To Our Knees” is a testament to a spiritual love that has been tested to extremes and yet still found to be true. A perfectly-cut gem, it provides the album with an exhausted but stunningly beautiful conclusion.

Clarence White” proves to be a more agitated examination of similar themes. A dark, bluesy gospel, the stomps, handclaps and big, bassy piano chords punctuate a fraught narrative which includes a walk-on part for Charlton Heston and the “destroying angels” of Cecil B DeMille’s 10 Commandments. Written after a recent flood that tore through Duluth, it is a song not about the late, great Byrds guitarist but about religious terror and the avenging power of the elements.

“You think it’s pretty, but I am a raging river” sings Sparhawk. It is the album’s most impassioned vocal performance, high and hair-raising. It is also a line that encapsulates the strange, unsettling beauty of the entire Low oeuvre, and this record in particular. Still waters, running dark and deep.
Graeme Thomson

Photo credit: Zoran Orlic

Rating: 8 / 10

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