My love is for free
“With the last couple of records, we were grappling with something outside of ourselves. This one feels more like, ‘Well, forget that. I’m looking in your eyes right now, and we need to figure out how to get through the next moment, together, as human beings.’”
“Most of our records just kind of fall together. There’s not a lot of real forethought that goes into it, to be honest.”
I don’t think it’s right to speculate too closely or seriously about the mental states and the personal lives of the musicians we love, by which I mean both that 1. I think it’s invasive and illegitimate and a little icky and 2. I don’t think it works. It’s an open question whether we really know those closest to us, so the idea that we can discern the innermost thoughts, desires, and intentions of someone we don’t know through lyrics, melodies, and interviews borders on the ridiculous or the insane.
But that doesn’t mean that fans don’t construct narratives. It can be hard to follow a band for years and not feel like you know them, to move from feeling affection and warmth for just the music to transferring those feelings to the humans that make the music, to think that you discern unspoken hopes and conflicts and background. A group like Low, together since 1993 and consisting of married couple Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker and a bassist (for most of the band’s life Zak Sally, for the last few years Steve Garrington), is especially rich ground for this kind of fandom. The band’s story folds in the kind of long-running marital devotion unknown to most bands not called Yo La Tengo, religion (Alan and Mimi are both still, as far as I know, devout Mormons), politics (2007’s fractious, harrowing, gorgeous volte face Drums and Guns expresses a level of discontent with modern American political life that is, frankly, stunning), mental health (Alan can tell you that he’s had a rough couple of years), and music that ranges from the crystalline slowcore of their early years to fierce Neil Young/noise storms, from swooning pop harmonies to Alan on the mountaintop, raging at God or man or both.
C’mon, their ninth album, is probably the most immediately welcoming of their career, their warmest and most open-hearted (as opposed to open-veined) record. If you’ve never heard the band before, it’s a wonderful place to start. The opening “Try to Sleep” is one in a long line (stating from, say, “Venus”) of just ravishingly beautiful melodies that Low can seemingly knock out at will. It’s the best single-as-single Low has had in a while, and even then the immense empathy in Alan and Mimi’s voices when they sing “you try to sleep, ‘cause there’s never enough” is strengthened and made stranger, more affecting, by what comes next: “you try to sleep, but then you never wake up… don’t look at the camera.” For a band that’s long been praised or dismissed as just pretty, “Try to Sleep” is the latest example of how much funnier, darker, and stranger Low are than most people give them credit for. You don’t need a history with the band to discern how beautiful and compassionate Mimi’s voice is in “Especially Me” or to be struck by the brief, stark harmonies of “Done”, to fall for the dense churn of “Majesty/Magic” or the rapturous, slightly jazzy “Nightingale”, to appreciate the almost liturgical sense of repetition and reverence in “$20” and the fierce, dense “Nothing But Heart” (or even to appreciate the Kool Keith reference in “Witches”, another fascination glimpse into Alan’s sense of humour and outrage).
Low recorded much of the album in the same church where they made 2002’s Trust (maybe their darkest album), but then they decamped to Hollywood and worked with Matt Beckley. Beckley might seem like an odd choice at first (some of his more high-profile credits are Avril Lavigne, Leona Lewis, and Ke$ha), and the band met him mainly because his dad Gerry (from 70s soft rock godheads America) did backing vocals on Trust. But the result doesn’t sound like the band are out of their element; Beckley has burnished the production on these songs to a warm glow, but its one that’s still identifiably Low. From the jangle of “Try to Sleep” to the waves of sound coursing through “Majesty/Magic” to the relatively unadorned closer “Something’s Turning Over”, C’mon continues Low’s recently hot streak of albums that just sound impeccable, although these days no two sound the same. The band stopped any real fidelity to the (self-imposed, and half joking) slowcore tag years ago, but their music is still marked by a certain unhurried grace; other than that, Low aren’t anything but a great rock band.
But as great as C’mon is in a vacuum, viewed over the palimpsest of Low’s history, these ten tracks are even more powerful. People who follow the band enough to have the box set, to have tracked down the Dutch TV documentary and have heard the b-sides will find it hard to hear these songs, and the context provided by Alan in press materials and interviews, without remembering watching him finally admit that their classic “Will the Night” was a love song for Mimi (her response, paraphrased: “took you long enough”), or the story of why they had to cancel a tour a few years back, or even just the way Alan sounded on Drums and Guns’ “Murderer” and the way that the album seemed to have less of Mimi than ever before. As I said above, it’s illegitimate of me to speculate on Alan and Mimi’s personal life, but ever since I read Alan saying that this record was almost a conversation between the two of them I’ve found a whole new kind of emotion, nuance, and relief in Mimi’s wry rebukes “You See Everything” and “Especially Me”, in their harmonies on “Nightingale” and “Something’s Turning Over”, in the pledge of devotion that is “Nothing But Heart”. Low’s recent work has been nothing short of stellar, but at times it seemed as if they were moving closer and closer to some sort of event horizon, and hearing them say, well, ‘forget that. I’m looking in your eyes right now, and we need to figure out how to get through the next moment, together, as human beings’ is a relief. That it accompanies such a great record is almost gravy for long-time devotees. Most of “Nothing But Heart” is Alan and Mimi singing together, but Alan starts the song by himself, after a brief invocation of Crazy Horse, with a verse that perfectly encapsulates and rarifies the band’s journey over the last few years:
I would be your king
But you wanna be free
Confusion and art
I’m nothing but heart
As Alan and Mimi repeat that last line, they slowly dissolve into a surprisingly gentle cloudbank of layered guitars. We don’t hear them clearly again until “Something’s Turning Over”, but the message is clear. Low’s always been nothing but heart, but it’s been a while since that heart has been as clear and strong as this.