Every time I listen to Double Negative — the unsettling and ambitious new record from Low, out recently via Sub Pop – I am reminded of the video for the record’s first single, “Quorum.” Edited into a kind of disorienting, rapid-edit triptych, the black-and-white film juxtaposes blurred photos of the band members, at once pensive but disturbed, with stark images of ice, exhaust smoke, and a church’s stained-glass windows, all over the craggy pseudo-percussion that is at the song’s center. “It’s not the end/ it’s just the end of hope,” Alan Sparhawk coos over a shimmery guitar on “Dancing and Fire,” later on the LP. Much could be said of the whole record; if this isn’t some form of commentary on the dissolution of a society on the brink of madness, I don’t know what is.
Yes, yes, this isn’t your older brother’s Low. Gone is the slow-core that made the trio darlings of 1990s audiophiles, replaced with dissonant soundscapes, looped recordings of found sound, and vocals cut and edited in disarray. Anyone who thought The Great Destroyer was a departure will be knocked off their feet here. So, let’s read the thesis and repeat it loudly: this is the boldest reinvention of a modestly/moderately popular alt-something band since Radiohead’s Kid A, now nearly 20 years ago.
“Quorum” kicks off the 11-track proceedings and it’s an appropriate introduction; the band allows a looped, whirring chug-a-chug to go unadorned for nearly half a minute, before being joined only by a celestial synth. The sense of foreboding is palpable. “The Son, The Sun,” clocking in around 3:30, is entirely an ambient construction, the only thing accompanying the main found sounds that resembles Low being some whispery vocals, deep in the mix. These are just the sign posts.
Much of the record unfurls in a continuous bit of fuzz, making tracks like the seemingly familiar “Dancing and Fire,” with its glassy guitars leading an army of multi-tracked Sparhawk/Parker harmonies, seem downright exacting or pedantic. “Rome (Always In The Dark)” features on the few moments with traditional percussion and, then, it’s a kind of floor-tom thumping over a lurching bass line. This is ominous stuff. But it also fits like an old sweater. Think of the new record, then, as Low turning itself inside-out; the slow-core structures and weepy melodies remain but the textures, the details, are completely different.
At the record’s heart, though, are still the voices of Sparhawk and Parker. As much as the sound whirls around them, they continue to emote their fragile duets, often multitracked to a point near incongruity. But the voices are there, guiding us, providing a kind of light. And what better way to think of Low than as an usher, a bit of sense, in a world gone straight to hell?