It’s worth reminding ourselves sometimes that most bands don’t make it to 20 years. The closest the best band from Duluth, Minnesota has come to taking a break is the four years between Drums and Guns and C’mon, and that gap isn’t exactly atypical these days (plus, Alan Sparhawk put out two Retribution Gospel Choir albums in between). Twenty years! And this is Low’s tenth album, which means they’ve hit another milestone than an awful lot of bands never do. There have been different bassists (of which the most notable are the long-serving Zak Sally, now mostly making comics, and current Low/RGC member Steve Garrington), but the core singing/songwriting/married duo of Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have been doing this for longer than many of their current contemporaries have been able to drink/capable of coherent speech/been alive (delete as appropriate).
The Invisible Way is very good — and not just “good for a band that’s 20 years old.” In fact, if you compare it to, say, U2’s Pop, the Rolling Stones’ Undercover, or R.E.M.’s Reveal (all albums made around their makers respective 20th year together), it’s pretty clear that Low haven’t succumbed to a lot of the weaknesses and flaws that tend to crop up in long running acts; maybe that’s one of the silver linings of never becoming world conquering and mega rich? The Invisible Way foregrounds piano and acoustic guitar, not instruments Low have traditionally relied on, and the result builds on 2011’s tender C’mon (which saw Low, and especially Alan, pull out of an increasingly fraught descent into severe political and emotional angst that was artistically productive but probably not great news personally). Where Low was once mostly spare, sere, and forbidding even when harmonizing beautifully, now they are warmly idiosyncratic songwriters that can still stun with slow-motion spellbinders like “Amethyst” as well as the faster-paced but equally charming likes of “Mother” and “To Our Knees”.
Many Low songs used to get by with a bare minimum of lyrics, which made for striking but often gnomic songs; now a song like “Plastic Cup” goes from a character sketch of a drug addict to a reverie about archeologists trying to figure us out a millennium from now in three gorgeous minutes. Alan can sing songs like “Clarence White” that’s halfway between the sinister, oblique portrait of “John Prine” from 2002’s Trust, and the playful pop structures of “Witches” from C’mon. And Mimi, taking a much-deserved and -anticipated step forward this album, sings five songs by herself, ranging from the compassionate probing of self and world in “Holy Ghost” and “Just Make it Stop” that calls to mind C’mon highlight “Especially Me”, and single “So Blue” isn’t really much else besides a showcase for her still amazing voice (which isn’t a criticism; as the back half of the song sees Mimi launch into seemingly endless runs of the soaring refrain at the heart of the song, it’s thrilling).
The only time Alan’s impressively Crazy Horsian guitar sturm und drang gets pulled out here is during the swelling, joyful finish of the penultimate “On My Own”, as he and Mimi chant “happy birthday”. Who knows if they’re even being literal, and if they are who knows whose birthday it is, and when (someone in the band? one of their kids? producer Jeff Tweedy?). I like to think they’re singing it to their band to this thing they’ve made together and with others, that’s given them work and an outlet for expression for two decades, that’s spread in fits and starts around the world and has been heard and valued by at least thousands of people they may never even meet. Most bands don’t get to 20 years. Even fewer get there without having some rot set in. Low have changed over the years, but they’ve remained vital, and The Invisible Way is one heck of a birthday present for the rest of us.