Saturday, June 09, 2007

Shot to the heart

Time was when you knew exactly what a new Low album would sound like: a beautifully and delicately crafted spiderweb of sound, exquisitely slow and - yes - very low.

Then, in 2003, came Trust. As if the chillingly insidious sense of threat cloaking songs like 'John Prine' and 'Candy Girl' wasn't enough of a shock to the system, incongruous lead single 'Canada' was a loud fuzzy quasi-pop gem.

Perhaps inevitably, 2005's The Great Destroyer left more Low fans feeling betrayed. Their approximation of a classic rock record replete with musical allusions to Neil Young, it signalled that their discovery of the distortion pedal and power chord on 'Canada' wasn't a one-off, while some of the tracks clustered towards its brilliant conclusion - 'When I Go Deaf', 'Death Of A Salesman', 'Walk Into The Sea' - were remarkable for the way they ultimately mutated into statements of heartbreaking positivity.

Suffice to say that the Duluth trio's latest offering Drums And Guns is different again.

As opening verses of opening songs on albums go, "All the soldiers / They're all gonna die / All the little babies / They're all gonna die" is striking in the extreme. In this way 'Pretty People' effectively sets the tone for the whole album - one which boasts such song titles as 'Your Poison', 'In Silence', 'Murderer' and 'Violent Past'. Sure, there is the odd brief moment of levity (such as the opening couplet of 'Hatchet': "You be my Charlie and I can be your George / Let's bury the hatchet like The Beatles and The Stones") - but they're few and far between.

It's hard not to attribute the bleakness of chief songwriter and lyricist Alan Sparhawk's vision to the mental breakdown he suffered during the course of the Great Destroyer tour, something which was cited by bassist Zak Sally as his principal reason for deciding to quit the band (Drums And Guns is the first with his replacement Matt Livingston).

But the new record isn't remarkable primarily for its bleakness and fatalism by contrast to the positivity of much of its predecessor; it's for the way in which Low have ventured into what is for them hitherto unexplored musical territory by embracing technology. The songs are short, deceptively simple and for the first time underpinned with electronic pulses and clicks as much as by Mimi Parker's metronomic Mo-Tucker-on-Mogadon drums. The parallels that have been drawn with Kid A, while a little exaggerated (Drums And Guns doesn't represent quite such a significant departure from The Great Destroyer as Kid A did from OK Computer), are nevertheless relevant and instructive.

As a long-time Low fan at least, the results of this experiment are initially hard to love, but over time it becomes apparent that they're actually a resounding success. On tracks like 'Always Fade' and 'Breaker' (perhaps the standout), the synthetic elements are incorporated in such a way that they don't dilute or compromise the band's essential qualities but rather complement them, hinting tantalisingly at new avenues down which the band could travel - should they choose to do so, of course.

If we're talking the running standings for my album of the year, this is right up there.


Too Many Words, Too Many Words - Ian's Low blog


Ian said...

I am exceedingly glad you like this one so much, as I definitely do; and I hadn't heard Sally actually did cite Alan's breakdown as a reason, did you have a link to that? I'd love to read it.

That being said, I bite my tongue a bit at some of your earlier claims... "John Prine" and "Candy Girl" are actually in a long tradition of chilling/creepy Low songs, and the Neil Young influence stretches back to The Curtain Hits the Cast at least.

But, errr, you're entirely right about the way those albums are very different from the work that came before them, so now I just feel like a pedant. Writing an oeuvreblog on a bad will do that to you!

Ben said...

When Sally left I think he said something along the lines of not being able to cope with Sparhawk's mental instability and moodswings any more - though it may have been phrased less directly than that.

As for 'John Prine' and 'Candy Girl' and the Neil Young thing - the perils of not being familiar with a band's back catalogue! I have every album since Secret Name, but nothing before it - and I've not even heard anything before it. If, hypothetically, you take Secret Name as their debut, then I think my points are valid; but if, as you suggest, they're not valid if you actually look at their whole oeuvre, that just means I need to investigate further and do my research properly - which I'm sure will be a pleasure rather than a chore!