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Low - Double Negative Music Album Reviews

The austere trio has profoundly warped their slowcore sound to create an ambitious, modern wonder of an album, an exploration of the song as an imperfect conduit of feeling.

It is a flabbergasting coincidence that Low’s 12th album ended up sharing its name with one of the most absurd moments of Donald Trump’s summer. In July, about a month after the band announced their album, Trump publicly backpedaled from a comment he’d made which seemed to indicate to Russian President Vladimir Putin that, unlike the CIA and FBI and the remainder of the intelligence agencies, he didn’t believe Russia had interfered in the 2016 election. “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’” went Trump’s revision. “Sort of a double negative.”

This might not even be worth mentioning if the Midwest’s premier slowcore ensemble hadn’t crafted their astounding new album, Double Negative, as a scowling and shellshocked response to Trump’s America. In a recent Wire cover story, guitarist and vocalist Alan Sparhawk said Trump’s administration prompted him to question “humanity, logic, modern society” and he’s quoted as referring to Trump as “that prick” onstage. And now, the album’s title is imbued with further meaning, a reiteration of the worst president at his worst. The serendipity adds to, but is hardly the extent of, the considerable wonder of an album in which a career indie band manages to warp their sound profoundly while retaining the soul of their art. Double Negative defies expectations yet makes perfect sense.

This record would knock listeners on their asses coming from any band at any time, but it is extraordinary that Low is doing such challenging, relevant work 25 years into their career. Long gone are the days when the group could dumbfound with just a handful of sounds: the splat of a snare; guitar, and bass that sounded suspended in codeine; Sparhawk’s perma-mourn; the heavenly Mimi Parker on halo. The prevailing slowcore sound of their first half-dozen albums cast Low’s musical identity in metal, to borrow an image from 2001’s landmark Things We Lost in the Fire, so much so that one could have easily overlooked the slow expansion of their sound over the last decade and a half.

The work on Double Negative, while often sounding completely radical in its own right, isn’t uncharacteristic, per se. It taps into the band’s wanderlust, its generous melodic sensibility, its considerable aptitude in creating atmosphere, not just in the abstract but in the realm of drone. The album is like a discovery of a new mutation of still-recognizable DNA. And finally this new strain of sound isn’t just bold for Low; it’s just plain bold.

No 11-song statement has functioned quite like this, though you’re likely to be reminded of snatches and scraps of other artists in the band’s pivot and ensuing textures—William Basinski’s tactile nature and exercises in disintegration, Throbbing Gristle’s thicker, full-bodied moments, My Bloody Valentine’s degradation celebration, the organized chaos of Björk’s Homogenic. This is a leap forward from its vaguely predictive source, a la Radiohead’s Kid A.

The band recorded Double Negative over the past two years with producer BJ Burton at Justin Vernon’s April Base studio in Wisconsin. Burton, who wrote and played on Bon Iver’s own makeover record, 2016’s 22, A Million, has made clear that he has a knack for helping steer a band into the logical unknown. Their previous collaboration with Burton, 2015’s glitchy-around-the-edges Ones and Sixes, only hinted at what was to come. Double Negative is nothing but edges. It is an album with noise coming out of its wounds. It conjures the exact inverse of the sort beautifying restoration work done on the soundtracks of vintage films to remove thumps, hums, and crackles. Here thumps, hums, and crackles are piled on and the results are rarely short of stunning.

On the surface, Double Negative may appear to be a collection of songs that were composed and then dismantled, a sort of electronic-indie answer to prefab distressed jeans. This seems particularly so on tracks like opener “Quorum,” which feels like it’s being run over by square tires with snow chains, and “Tempest,” which is filtered to the point of sounding as if it’s playing from a needle on a turntable that’s collecting toxic sludge. But apparently, the process was much more integrated than merely building up to break down—the band would show up with rough sketches of songs and then hammer them out with Burton. In the process, the line between performer and producer was scribbled out in static.

Collectively, Low and Burton take an egalitarian approach. Creation and decay intertwine and texture is as crucial as melody. At times, Low’s already oblique lyrics are obscured by distortion; at others, vocals are sampled and contorted into alien sound transmissions, courtesy of keyboardist/bassist/synth-manipulator Steve Garrington. The composition is dynamic and riveting—“Always Trying to Work It Out” is gentle, classic Low, smoldering under reverb until it splits in half and pours out even more static—midway through, the song sounds like it’s frying. And then boom: a muffled bass drum rumbles and it all pulls together just as it had before it fell apart. Additionally, many of the songs here extend way beyond their verses and choruses to ambient codas that are every bit as assured as the more conventional structures that lead to them. “The Son, the Sun,” is only ambience. Haunted by what sounds like moderate wind passing over a mic, while a distant synth echoes and coalesces with wordless, reverberating vocals, it’s a three-and-a-half minute shiver.

For something so consistently thrilling, Double Negative is deathly grim. Noise slurps and laps away at melodies with a diseased tongue. What sounds like a monster trapped in a box provides rhythm on “Poor Sucker.” On “Dancing and Fire,” Sparhawk moans, “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope,” a seeming rebuke to the title of Low’s 1994 debut album, I Could Live in Hope.

“Dancing and Fire” is one of the few songs with completely intelligible vocals on a record filled with voices under siege, obscured and buried as if to render in a way beyond words the current administration’s attack on speech. There’s a sort of strobe effect on “Dancing and Blood,” as though Parker’s vocal is playing off a cassette that warped after being left on a car’s dashboard in the summertime. Anxiety—from getting lost in all the noise, of not being heard, of even perhaps adding to that noise—runs rampant on Double Negative, which works just as well as music as it does conceptual art: Here is an album-long exploration of the song as an imperfect conduit of feeling. On such shaky ground, three songs here strive for permanence in their titles—“Always Up,” “Always Trying to Work It Out,” and “Rome (Always in the Dark).” The tragedy is implicit and enduring.

We are in a climate where art is judged for its politics as much as (if not more than) its aesthetics, where people look at entertainment like they do voters: You’re either part of the problem, or the solution. Making a socially conscious album might seem like an obvious move, but Low present something far more visceral than protest music, a body of work that doesn’t dictate but is more interested in a despair that galvanizes and paralyzes. The political and aesthetic here, in fact, are impossible to separate. Double Negative’s sheer audacity, its lack of easy answers and its risk of alienating longtime fans, rules out any notion that this is some sort of cheap bandwagon-jumping or pretentious wokeness. At times there’s even a chilling pragmatism—caked in fuzz and to a double-time pulse that honks at a (relatively) brisk 103 BPM, Sparhawk and Parker sing on the album’s ultimate track, “Disarray,” “Before it falls into total disarray/You’ll have to learn to live a different way.” Their radical revision of their sound doesn’t provide a model, merely an impressionistic expression of how that might feel. That the song sails out on Low’s most enduring trademark—Sparhawk and Parker’s intertwined harmonies—suggests not everything has to be lost in the fire.

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