After the career zenith of 2001’s Things We Lost in the Fire, Duluth Minnesota rock veterans Low began to evolve their sound in more drastic ways than the period preceding it. With varying degrees of success, Trust and The Great Destroyer stuck pinpricks and gouged potholes in the notion that Low were only capable of sonic and lyric minimalism. But while those albums yielded a great number of songs that surprised and defied expectations, neither quite broke Fire’s orbit in forcefully rewriting the rules, or throwing them out altogether, on what Low could be or achieve. Drums and Guns, however, does just that, representing another pinnacle for the band after a long climb, building on the experiments of their recent output but with reawakened confidence and vigor.
The most important development in Low’s sound on Drums and Guns is Dave Fridmann’s production. On The Great Destroyer, Fridmann’s first collaboration with the band, the sounds felt compressed, claustrophobic, instruments and voices rubbed raw against each other. The new album, though no less busy in terms of arrangement, gives each texture plenty of space, which does particular wonders for the voices of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. On “Belarus”, perhaps the track most deviant from trademark Low, tinny percussion alternates with digital beats reminiscent of Oval or Radiohead’s “Kid A”. Strange, computer-altered cooing holds court in one speaker, while strings sweep along in another. “To my mouth / Frozen shut / Mother’s son / Paper cut / Bela-rooooooos,” the couple sings in odd, detached harmony. It’s addictively listenable, recombining elements from past efforts into something fresh and new.
“Breaker” builds itself similarly on synthetic percussion and actual handclaps, a slightly jarring combination pulled together by a handful of organ notes and jagged Sparhawk guitar skronk. “Always Fade” employs a more complicated rhythmic pattern clicking through what sounds like faintly howling digital wind. The basic organization of Drums and Guns is thus made clear: rigid, straightforward elements (drums, voices) juxtaposed with looser fragments of noise (everything else, from guitar to harmonica to backing vocals, all stretched like taffy). Every song is given this treatment to some extent. Low’s other recent tunes like “California” and “Canada” tried to defy expectations by fattening up the guitar tones and raising the volume into the realm of melodic, if fairly standard modern rock. Nothing on Drums and Guns, however, aims for those conventions. These are broken hymns, charred fight songs, and unsure anthems. “Take Your Time” takes its time crawling out of a fog of drone and church bells into an aural sketch, “So she waits on the edges of the mattress / What it takes to get her bad mess out of a bad dress / When she sings it’s like a blue note on a whipping post / When she speaks, it’s like the good lord or the holy ghost.” It’s a scrap of a story torn out of the first third of a gothic novel, bewildering, but not lacking in conviction. “In Silence” is just as slim on exposition, but its few lines quickly reveal their political nature, “They thought the desert would divide us / ...They filled our hearts and hands with violence.”
The scuttlebutt in the months leading up to Drums and Guns has been primarily concerned with the implications of song titles like “Murderer”, “Sandinista”, “Hatchet”, and “Violent Past”, but grim subject and mood are both nothing new to Low, and those titles aren’t often attached to the most difficult or pointed songs. “Hatchet” for example, is so named for the lyric, “Let’s bury the hatchet like the Beatles and the Stones.” A brief tune (like much of Drums, where no track pushes far beyond four minutes), “Hatchet” is a curiosity, offering a respite from the heaviness of the rest of the album. In turn, it’s followed by the even shorter “Your Poison”, a bitter shred of a song along the lines of Destroyer’s “Death of a Salesman” and “When I Go Deaf”, directly addressing Sparhawk’s bittersweet relationship with his art and its critics. “If you don’t like my lines good people / You better open wide good people” he snarls, echoing the opener “Pretty People”, “All the poets / And all the liars / And all you pretty people / We’re all gonna die.” No coded messages here, just the truth, blunt and ugly, wrapped in sheets of harmony and noise that are delightfully anything but.