If there were a race, someone might try and remark that Low, being slow and steady, should be winning it. They’ve made music with little need to compromise and made a living at it for over ten years; that alone is a huge win. The assumed consistency of their music, the slow and steady part, has been a blessing to their fans and artillery for their critics. With each new album, from 1994’s I Could Live in Hope through 2002’s Trust, they made small steps away from the sound that defined them and by which they defined themselves. If each new album didn’t exactly yield grand surprises, their sound was hardly as readily uniform as some might lead you to believe.
With the release of Trust, the steps were more obviously adding up to a bigger picture. They recorded the album on their own after having done two previous with Steve Albini, and they widened the pool of sounds they were drawing from while keeping the framework mostly the same. The change in the air hanging around the band felt to be accelerating. Bassist Zak Sally left the band very briefly and re-joined when Low was invited by Radiohead to open a portion of their European tour. In 2004, they self-released a three-CD box-set to mark their tenth anniversary as a band, left their label of almost five years, Kranky Records (“An amazing label,” says Sally. “Great guys and we had a great run with them. Absolutely no bullshit.”), and signed with Sub Pop to release the album they had just finished with producer Dave Fridmann. They promised fans that it would be different from anything that the band had done before. It seemed unlikely but increasingly plausible that commercially impossible Low might be in a position to attract a bigger audience.
“I don’t know what the hell people thought of Tonight’s the Night or On the Beach when Neal [Young] did it; they must have thought he was going nuts. But you look back and they’re a pretty special deal. He was just being honest about what the hell was going on at the time without worrying about how it was going to be taken.” Zak Sally, bassist for Low, is on the phone from a tour stop in Washington, DC. The band is out supporting the recently issued The Great Destroyer, an album that leaves little doubt as to whether or not Low’s music can evolve enough, and stay fresh enough, to keep justifying new albums. While not as much of a departure as some are making it out to be it is undeniably the least-Low record yet, which is of course impossible and is of course the point; Low is whatever Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, and Zak Sally want it to be. “We’ve spent all these years building up this vocabulary and with this record we got to mess around in our own world. We have enough confidence in being Low that we can really be kind of joyful about doing whatever we want with that.”
Recording was begun at guitarist Sparhawk and drummer Parker’s home in Duluth on the band’s 8-track with the intention of making demos of new songs. The tapes were taken to Fridmann, and some songs got further work and others were left alone. Some reactions to the album, either blaming or crediting Fridmann for the expanded sound, may be based as much on pre-conceived notions about his work as on anything actually put to tape. Still, it’s hard to hear the synth wash of “Cue the Strings” or the vocal ping-pongs at the end of “Monkey” and not hear Fridmann at work. “I think this record, in certain ways, might be our biggest record,” says Sally. There’s something that happened with this record. It doesn’t feel like a departure but it does feel like kind of a larger step than we’ve taken before. I don’t want to say it was totally conscious and that we tried to do that because we actually didn’t. I think that the biggest step we took was that we had to admit we had a body of work at this point and each album is a piece of that.”
Working through changes, along with the confidence that comes from being able to look back on accomplishments and knowing that each new album won’t be your last, helped lift pressures off of the band that may have been hard for them to even know were there. That, as well as playing for thousands of people in some of Europe’s oldest stadiums opening for Radiohead. “There was a freedom about it and a chance to open up and try to figure out how to convey what we do to that many people in any way that we could,” says Sally. “I think there had been an opening up over the previous three [albums], and I think on this one we did sort of blow the doors open but that wouldn’t have happened without the previous three records. And that gives us a lot of faith in going on because we kind of forced ourselves to be a little bit more bold or however you want to put it with this record and you have to look back and say it’s because we did this and this and this. And this is where we were at this time and where we were at this time. I don’t wish we would have made this record three years ago. It’s just all a piece of where the band is at that moment. This is where we are now and we’ll be someplace else a year from now.”
By opening up they’ve made an album that erases expectations of what their future work will be. Other Low albums have had the random song that pointed to what they’ve created with this album (Is “Monkey” any more of a shocking opener than “Just Like Christmas”?) but what’s different is that so little concession was made to what people expect from them. “I don’t feel like we’re different now. Whatever it is, we still try to strip it down to the essence of whatever is going on.” Even if the approach was the same, The Great Destroyer creates much wider possibilities than some of the more limited ones that past albums suggested. Right off the tempos are faster, the guitars more distorted, the spaces fewer and considerably more cramped. “There still are restrictions to what we do,” says Sally. There was no sense of ‘you can’t do that, you can’t do this, don’t do that.’ It was more, ‘Let’s really concentrate on what we can do with this and only this.’ And then, as we went on, sort of pushing against those things is where things got really interesting.”
The sound of the album doesn’t grab you right off the way that the organic lushness of Secret Name and Things We Lost in the Fire, or the scratch the wall psychosis of Trust, did. It’s missing the mood that the sound of those albums created. More focus is placed, rightly so, on the songwriting. What used to be well-written songs that just happened to be played slowly are now well-written songs that can go wherever they need to. Low can certainly no longer be called stuck in their ways. And while they’ve never really been light, their most striking songs have always brought the band closer to Earth even if they left you suspended. “Things We Lost in the Fire,” whose very title seemed to speak to both the band’s vulnerability and resolve, began almost underground, with a portrait of death (“When they found your body / Giant X’s for your eyes”) that had to have been meant to startle. Death is still in the air of The Great Destroyer, obscured by the friendlier arrangements but ever-present. “One more step and I’ll slit your neck”, sings Sparhawk on “Just Stand Back”. Included, too, is the love amongst loss of “When I Go Deaf,” and on “California”, the farm is sold instead of bought, and even if the sale was forced at least they end up in California, “where it’s warm”.
Live, instead of changing to try and match the arrangements on the album, they make the songs conform to their set-up, taking out what they need and leaving the rest. The lengthy spaces in their early songs racked your nerves with anticipation. Maybe it was as basic as wondering if they’d all come back in together on the same beat. In the film Low in Europe Sally explains, “I just remember playing these songs unbelievably slow. It was so tense constantly. I can’t imagine people had fun watching it.” Now, though some of the songs are built around less space, the performance is no less engaging. They don’t invite sing-alongs or dancing but neither are they shut off. They still load and set-up all of their own equipment on stage (“We’ve really expanded out since the early days. It’s just on this tour that we’ve gotten a merch guy.”) and when Sparhawk and Parker sing, what you thought might be frail becomes mighty.
“We have to be honest to what we feel we should be doing right at this moment in time. You look at artists that you respect who have longevity and that’s what they do. They look at this as pieces of a body of work. Your life determines more what the record is going to sound like more than you determining.” With The Great Destroyer Low has expanded the space in the pigeonhole created for them in the indie-rock canon; maybe that’s the monkey they’re out to kill on the album’s first song. It’s a step they didn’t have to take, but with it they’re a band that now seems capable of anything.