Review: The Invisible Way – Low

Posted: March 15, 2013 in 2010s, 3/5, 4/5, Alternative, Low
Tags: , , , , , ,

Invisible WayI’m interrupting my walk through Johnny Cash’s Columbia Records catalogue, to pay tribute to a long-time favourite of mine, Low.  On Tuesday, March 19th, Low release The Invisible Way, their 10th full-length album, marking 10 albums in 20 years. Not bad for the survivors of an obscure genre (slowcore) from an obscure place (Duluth).

I came to Low in the mid-90’s when I was part of an e-mail list (remember those?) for fans of the Cure. I was told if you love the stark minimalism of Seventeen Seconds (check!) and Faith (check!), then Low were the band for you. I stumbled across a vinyl copy of their new release, The Curtain Hits the Cast, and picked it up. Unbeknownst to me, this was quite the rarity, featuring two exclusive tracks. Shortly thereafter, a local record shop had the Over the Ocean single, featuring an incredible hypnotic version of Be There (percussion provided by banging on a clothes dryer). I caught them as they passed through Ottawa, for what was the concert of a lifetime: two stellar opening acts (The Wooden Stars, and the sublime Ida), a tiny basement bar, and a set so quiet that my friend fell asleep four feet from the stage (and singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk still apologized for being too loud).

What attracted me to Low was their sheer intensity. Each of their first three albums – I Could Live in Hope, Long Division and Curtain – were singular in vision. Slow as anything I had heard, compelling, quiet, sometimes terrifying, with shining moments of absolute beauty. In fact, many of the things I love about Johnny Cash – minimalism, ringing guitars, and haunting vocals – applied equally to Low. They simply came from different genres in different eras.

Over the years, though, like Cash, Low have sought to broaden their sonic palette. The Songs for a Dead Pilot EP stripped away the reverb, offering a new lo-fi approach at the hands of Steve Albini. He went on to produce the gorgeous chamber pop of Secret Name, further expanded upon and slightly rocked out on Things We Lost in the Fire. 2002’s Trust seemed to round out the era, drawing on elements of all their previous albums. Moving to Sub Pop, they swapped delay pedals for distortion on 2005’s The Great Destroyer. The follow-up, Drums and Guns, was entirely different once again, offering a deconstructionist, electronic approach to a new set of songs. C’Mon was in some ways a return to form, again allowing for gorgeous pop, blissed out distorted jams, and some slower, spacier numbers as well.

For a fan grounded in those earlier releases, each of which offered a stark commitment to a singular sound, their later releases have been mixed affairs for me. On the one hand, I have enjoyed many of their experiments, and find all of the elements I first loved about them – the beauty, the snarl, and the serenity – remain. On the other hand, very few of their albums have hung together from beginning to end. Plus there’s always a real stinker of a track somewhere on there (Step anyone?).

The release of The Invisible Way, then leaves me in both anticipation and fear. The production of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy is promising (another one of my fave’s, his work with Mavis Staples is a revelation). Advance promotion promised more contributions from drummer/vocalist/wife Mimi (great!) and lots of acoustic guitar and piano (hmmm… but I love Alan’s electric so much).

So what about The Invisible Way? Once again, it offers the “Low sound” from a different vantage. This time, it is driven by softly strummed acoustic and minimally chorded piano. In many ways, this is Low unplugged. It also reflects the warm, clear production style Tweedy has been developing. Where his own 6-man band’s arrangements are dense, he seems to help other artists strip away the layers to get to the essence of their songs. This is a natural fit for Low.

I’m happy to say that Mimi really takes charge on this album. In recent years, she’s offered only 2-3 songs per album. Here she’s on almost half of them. I’ve always loved the roundness of her tone, which blends well with Alan’s frailer sound. Funny thing is, on this album, she’s harmonizing with herself, often three times over. Holy Ghost is probably the peak here – beautiful, stately and lush. The lyrics – some holy ghost keeps me hanging on/i feel the hands/but don’t see anyone – could equally be religious or romantic, expressing her Mormonism in a personal yet universal way.  Four Score is another soft tune, and she closes the album with the reflective To Our Knees. Both of these are pretty, and continue in a spiritual vein, but I find them unmemorable. Often Mimi’s songs stick in your head for days – take the dripping, repetitive chorus of Over the Ocean, or her heartbreaking When You Walked Out on Me – but these ones just float pleasantly through your ears and then move on. As if predicting the risk of boredom, she surprisingly offers two upbeat numbers: the driving So Blue, and the poppy Just Make It Stop. So Blue is the better of the two, the intro builds up with piano-driven octaves walking up a major scale as Alan’s guitar grumbles underneath, making way for Mimi’s angelic voice to burst through the ether. Stop, however, feels really clumsy to me. The melody is catchy (although the chord progression reminds me of Men Without Hats’ I Got the Message), but the pacing feels wrong.

Alan, on the other hand is in an experimental mood. Plastic Cup is acerbic and amusing, a meditation on a future anthropologists confused reflections on present-day drug testing.  The lyrics reflect some of the more bitter moments on The Great Destroyer; if only the brief two-chord instrumental passage developed into a longer jam. Waiting is a piano ballad they’ve been playing live that never really goes anywhere for me.  Lyrically, it reminds of the depression Alan began sharing publicly following Destroyer, and is deeply moving, as if it’s one sufferer reaching out to another: “I can see beyond the smile/cheat and lie/I’m not blind/suicide, I’ll still be here tomorrow.”  Yet musically it tries to reach the heights of past epic numbers like Will the Night, but just doesn’t get there. Clarence White hints at a soul/funk vibe, Mother is an acoustic waltz, and On My Own starts out as a strange take on country, until morphing into a Neil Young-worthy howling rave out… all with the repeated mantra of “happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday.”

The songs are all nice in their own right, but not much more than that. Just… nice. For everything I like about this album, I can remember another album where they’ve done it better. The guitar jams are longer and better on Destroyer’s When I Go Deaf or C’Mon’s Everything But Heart. The lush harmonies are sweeter on Secret Name’s Two Step. The pop culture references (the Byrds and Charlton Heston) are more natural on Drums & Gun’s Hatchet. The minimalism is more majestic on Long Division’s Below & Above. The regret is sadder on Pilot’s Hey Chicago.

Thankfully, there’s one perfect song: Amethyst. This song takes their new acoustic approach and drags it through a descending five-chord progression that swirls and swirls into magical oblivion. Together, Alan and Mimi lament, their voices on the verge of disintegration, “the color bleeds, fades to white, what used to be a violent mind.” A perfect Low moment. If only there were more of them this time round…

3.5/5… maybe 4 if I’m feeling generous…

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