There aren’t many American cities situated as far north as Duluth. Located at the base of the state’s armpit right where Minnesota extends beyond Wisconsin, Duluth sits at the top center of the country, like a star on a Christmas tee. When you visit there, it’s as if you can see from a distant remove the entire vastness of all that lies below. Like the town’s most famous band, the indie-rock institution, Low, Duluth is beautiful and cold, and also resilient. But it’s the feeling of separateness that defines the place. When you’re there, you don’t feel like you’re here.
First emerging in the early ’90s, Low still feels like a band apart. They started out playing crushingly slow and eerily quiet music that was all drone-y ambiance and pregnant pauses. It didn’t sound at all like contemporary rock music, which at the time meant grunge; it was more like a comment on contemporary rock music, a photo negative of the heavy riffs and bellowing melodrama that was in vogue at the time. This was a natural byproduct of the band’s core partnership between Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, a Mormon couple who eventually settled into a typical married Minnesota family life with two kids as they carried on an unlikely indie music career. Their brand was making records that inevitably led listeners inward, with languid grooves and spider-leg guitars leaving enough space to fill in with one’s own thoughts, fears, and existential dread.
As Low progressed into the 21st century, they kept writing quiet songs, but now they played them louder. Robert Plant became a fan and covered two of their songs. A Christmas EP of reverent religious tunes went on to be an enduring seasonal hit. They never found fame or riches, but they were respected and appreciated enough to carve out an admirable career. By the early 2010s, they were known as the kind of band who always makes good albums, an exceptional but numbing consistency that typically sets the stage for the “respectable and slightly dull” era of a legacy band’s existence.
Then, something incredible happened: Low radically reinvented themselves. With 2015’s Ones And Sixes, they commenced a relationship with producer B.J. Burton, who at the time was also in the process of assembling Bon Iver’s shape-shifting third album, 22, A Million. A long-time Low fan, Burton “had this vision of pushing them to make the most beautiful, distorted, post-apocalyptic record,” he later said, “the sort of thing you’d find 2,000 years ago if you dug the earth up.” But Ones And Sixes wasn’t all that different from Low’s previous albums.
On the next Low record, 2018’s Double Negative, the band finally fulfilled their producer’s ambitions. They brought him songs, and Burton then proceeded to digitally deface them, processing the sound of Low’s guitars and vocals the way a washing machine might “produce” a cassette tape mistakenly left in a jacket pocket. The final results sound like the afterbirth of another album that was destroyed in a fire, a haunting echo from an already dead source. These jagged and scrambled sounds exhilarated Sparhawk and Parker. Just as their early records deconstructed rock music, they were now discombobulating technology. “Maybe it’s revenge,” Sparhawk said in a recent interview. “I want to see technology break as much as it has broken me.”
The new Low album out Friday, HEY WHAT, completes a trilogy of Burton-assisted records. It’s also the strongest of the lot, an instant classic that culminates and sharpens their previous experiments for an overwhelming emotional experience. Like fellow upper midwestern legacy rock acts Bon Iver and Wilco, Low have mastered a unique form of “psych” music — as in “psychedelic” and also evoking extreme “psychic tension” — that balances an earthy musical approach with intense digital perversion. It might very well be the best album of a long and storied career.
The initial feeling that HEY WHAT prompts is disorientation. As was the case with Double Negative, it’s difficult to discern what exactly you’re hearing at any given moment. Is that a strangled synth noise gurgling the hook on the astonishing “All Night”? Could that really be a guitar playing an ersatz Black Sabbath riff on the thrillingly abrasive “More,” or is it actually the sound of an android being tortured in a secret S&M dungeon? HEY WHAT is a sonic assault, and yet Low once again achieves so much with relatively few sounds. This is essentially a voice and guitar record, so every added element carries extra weight. When a drum beat expectedly enters midway through the album’s closer, “The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off),” it hits like “When The Levee Breaks.”
What separates HEY WHAT from its predecessor is the prominence of Sparhawk and Parker’s vocals. On Double Negative, the voices are frequently buried amid the glitchy detritus. But on HEY WHAT, Low’s power couple sing out loud and proud with more or less total clarity, often contrasting with the absolutely hellacious soundscapes that surround them. Like on “Days Like These,” in which they sing as they would in church, before distorted guitars violently crash in and torch the pews, leading to an extended, oddly peaceful ambient coda. Or the chilling “I Can’t Wait,” in which they plead “I’m afraid” several times over what sounds like a bloodless computer beeping out binary code after a nuclear blast.
Whereas Double Negative unfolded as a mood piece, expressing the shocked trauma of the Trump years in purely musical terms, HEY WHAT is more dynamic, juxtaposing calm and hysteria throughout. The former comes entirely from Sparhawk and Parker, who sing about their marriage most explicitly on the almost unbearably tender “Don’t Walk Away,” an old-fashioned, ’50s-style ballad in which they jointly croon lines like, “I have slept beside you now for what seems like a million years.” But the whole album feels like a celebration of how having a longtime partner can make living in a confusing, terrifying world a little less confusing and terrifying.
Perhaps that’s why HEY WHAT, in spite of a musical palate that ensures the word “apocalyptic” will appear in every album review, ultimately feels redemptive, and even romantic. Low’s ability to re-think their approach and achieve a genuine artistic breakthrough that caps an already great discography is certainly inspiring; how many bands this good made their greatest LP 27 years after their debut? But — I know this is a mawkish phrase but screw it — it’s the power of love shared between Sparhawk and Parker that resonates most profoundly. Together, they sound strong and indefatigable on HEY WHAT, even as demons descend.