It’s hard to think of a band that has the back catalogue of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. Each project Low has released is a singular event. While ‘I Could Live in Hope’, ‘Trust’ and ‘C’mon’ don’t sound similar they all contain threads that connect them. These threads extend to their new album ‘HEY WHAT’.
The first thing you notice about ‘HEY WHAT’ is the lack of bass. This is the first Low album that only features Sparhawk and Parker as bassist Steve Garrington left in 2020. At first you don’t really miss the bass, as the guitars and drums are so consuming there is hardly any space left in mix for vocals. After a few more listens you start to listen out for it, but it isn’t there. This throws you off a bit, but once you realise what’s absent you don’t actually start to miss it. Instead Sparhawk and Parker have created songs that are as stripped down as anything they’ve ever released, but also pack more of a punch too. And this is the joy of the album. Low are, technically, offering you less, but they do it in a way that feels like more.
‘White Horses’ and ‘I Can Wait’ set the tone for the album. Swirling, abstract fugs of sound and glorious harmonies are the order of the day. The juxtaposition of stark electronics and graceful voices is a masterstroke. As the guttural noise reaches its zenith on ‘White Horses’ Sparhawk and Parker’s vocals cut through it like a diamond. Like a ray of sunlight through a storm cloud.
It isn’t until ‘All Night’ that ‘HEY WHAT’ really comes alive. This is what we’ve been waiting for. After the hangover of ‘I Can Wait’ ends ‘All Night Opens’ with a massive melody that pulls you in like the tractor beam on the Death Star. It’s a wonky, chugging thing that, again, pits itself against those serene vocals. Instead of working against each other, like the opening tracks, the element works together to create one of the best Low tracks since, well, since they started in the mid-90s. It’s just glorious!
‘Days Like These’ is the most devastating track on the album. It opens with slightly manipulated vocal harmonies. There is something wonderful about two voices becoming one. It feels old timey but not tired. After a minute of this acapella, a delicate guitar appears. Its tender. It makes you really feel the emotional impact of the vocals. Sparhawk and Parker start singing again, but the guitar is now this punishing wall of feedback. Its so overpowering it makes the vocals start to distort. Despite the levels of abrasion in the first five tracks, it takes you back. You aren’t expecting it. Even after 28 years Low can still surprise us. This is the mark of a classic band.
At its heart ‘HEY WHAT’ feels like a country album dressed up as an experimental one. The tone, and inflection, of Sparhawk and Parker, especially Parker, wouldn’t be out of place from a classic country album from the 70s or 80s. ‘Disappearing’ feels like something Neil Young and Emmylou Harris would croon. Their stories of love, loss and redemption would also work well with a twangy, acoustic, backing track. However, with the crunching sounds of destruction, desolation, the vocals take on a far more interesting meaning than if the music was more conventional.
And this is what ‘HEY WHAT’ is. A very clever album that plays with musical codes and conventions brilliantly to create something greater than the sum of its parts. This could be the bravest Low album in recent years. It surpasses ‘Double Negative’ in a way that is surprising, but also feels obvious. ‘HEY WHAT’ asks big questions of the listener. It demands us to take leaps of faith with them, but the pay off is worth it.
Where can Low go after this? You know what? Anywhere they want and we’ll gladly follow.
Words: Nick Roseblade
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