Low are slow. The sedateness, the slow velocity, of the band’s early years persist as the hallmarks that distinguish the group from so many trends that have come and gone since 1994 debut I Could Live in Hope. Though it is the memory of that slowness, as opposed to its present fact, that clouds the critical conversation about Low. 2002’s Trust (the direct middle of the band’s discography so far) was a turning point, after which the textures and tempos of the band would be less settled or predictable. Now, Low are sometimes slow and soft, but just as likely to be urgent and loud.
Yet there is another way in which Low could be generally framed by slowness. Setting aside the compositional features of individual songs and albums, we could see in Low a band not quick to seize the current sound or shape of rock ‘n’ roll. To not fit into a prevailing style. To not be influenced by hype; to instead move along at a more gradual pace. While Low’s songs have occasionally reached millions of people through advertisements or television shows or films, such appearances never seemed calculated to invite millions along for the ride. For the most part, Low has sustained a steady career by never being anyone’s next big thing.
Yet Ones and Sixes is surprising for sounding very much of the moment. The currency of the album is uncharacteristic for Low, but the motivations for that nowness are hardly important. After all, no group embarking on its third decade together should be disparaged for relevance. Ones and Sixes follows The Invisible Way (2013), which was Low’s least engaging album to date. This variance in quality has become somewhat predictable, as Low’s LP cycle in the decade since The Great Destroyer (2005) could be characterized as “one on, one off”. So it must be noted that Ones and Sixes sounds like the product of Great Destroyer/C’mon (2011) Low — a band switched-on and with purpose.
The feature that most causes Ones and Sixes to fit into its time and place is unsettling electronic production that is similar to recent movie soundtrack albums by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Various sorts of sonic experimentation, electronic percussion, etc., decorate songs that are otherwise quite recognizable as the product of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. Sparhawk and Parker haven’t traded their signature for another, but they have adorned it considerably.
On opening track “Gentle,” distorted sounds move from speaker to speaker like gnats that cannot be swatted away. The effect is that the ear never settles easily on the melody. In the second half of the song, prominent electronic bass underlies Parker’s lead vocals. Working with producer BJ Burton, Low appear to be on much more sure footing with this album’s experimentation than they were with the unorthodox mixing/production choices on Drums & Guns from 2007.
The compressed drums and loud mastering of single “No Comprende” challenge the listener. Mixing choices turn a simple composition into anything but easy listening. What grounds the song, initially, is some inventive new interplay of Sparhawk and Parker’s voices. But the real stunner comes with the third act, introduced by a much debated form of popular music transition — that of the “drop”. Here, however, Low finds something fresh to do with a modern sound. Low’s version of the drop is far removed from popular notions of electronic dance music and grafted onto a doomed expanse that sounds like Hex…-era Earth.
Another single, “Lies,” is perhaps the most direct in its appropriation of current popular music. Sparhawk’s vocal melody is strongly evocative of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida,” which is itself an historically contested melody. That Sparhawk would cop a tune from a wildly popular song whose authenticity is in dispute, for a song called “Lies” no less, is both humorous and works to further link Low to the current musical landscape.
The three tracks that form the album’s middle are collectively its sweet spot. “No End,” straight from the guitar pop-rock template and thus mysteriously unutilized as a single, precedes “Into You”, in which Parker’s voice cascades all around, multiplied into a chorus for a song about shared intimacy of two individuals. The final song of this trilogy, “What Part of Me” is the one that could be most easily read as a statement on a long-time marriage. Sparhawk sings the lead, describing a closeness that is by turns comforting and terrifying.
Overall, the lyrics of Ones and Sixes are less captivating than the voices that sing them. Too many songs coast on repeated phrases and cadences that don’t vary enough to create a cumulative effect reached by Low’s most arresting work. And “Landslide”, which at ten minutes in length promises to be a statement of a song, features some interesting sound effects but mostly drags. The words of “DJ”, the last song on the album, are a good conversation starter on the subjects of individual versus institution, conviction versus tradition, and other conflicts common to the Low discography.
Ones and Sixes is the sound of Low operating in a different gear. It would be inaccurate to say the band have caught up to the current state of pop/rock music, in part because there is little consensus therein. And whatever spheres the band are courting or passing through with this album, the long race has already revealed Sparhawk, Parker, and company to be among the most unassuming and unrivaled pacesetters of all.