Low’s seventh full-length album will win them new fans. That much is a given. It remains to be seen, however, if it will also lose them some old ones. Personally, I doubt it. A few, maybe, but whatever. There, that’s the standard final paragraph out of the way early. Now let’s enjoy this astounding record on its own terms.
The Duluth trio have confounded us again, which is a good thing of course. Virtually absent on The Great Destroyer are the spare, minimalist daubs of intimate beauty with which they’re so closely associated, and yet, nonetheless, it wades through a kind of dark, tumultuous resplendence all its own. This shift must surely be due in part to their move to Sub Pop and to David Fridmann’s sumptuous production, but I also suspect it’s just another sign of the band’s perversity, a maverick resistance to being typecast. For a band so notoriously still, so steeped in apparent (and genuine) domesticity, Low sure seem to be some restless musical nomads.
What is so remarkable about The Great Destroyer isn’t that the band turn up their guitar amps to, um, 9, or that the BPMs hover in the resting human heartbeat range as opposed to the cryogenic range of old, it’s that they do all these things, add a rich sonic kitchen-sink clutter (by their standards), vary the textural and rhythmic elements more than ever before, and still manage to pull it all off. Of course, anyone who has heard 1997’s “Venus” single, or “Canada” (from 2002’s Trust), will know that Low are perfectly capable of pop confection and rocking out respectively. The lazy-critic slowcore label has always seemed a little off. But what makes The Great Destroyer surprising is how seamlessly they balance all these moods and sounds. Not to mention courageously. This is an album, not a collection of Low songs.
Opener “Monkey” gives fair warning of this new tension, this dissonant struggle between irreconcilable urges. There is a sinuous fuzz overlaying Zak Sally’s bass drone and Mimi Parker’s arcane blood-sludge stick work. Husband/guitarist Alan Sparhawk sings of suicide and death, with liberal use of echo and delay, which is somehow fitting. Those precious harmonies are still there, but no longer isolated in a cathedral hush they sound more desperate and antagonistic, reeking of queasy addiction. An unsettling urgency breathes from even the sweetest pop melodies, like the vaguely Beatles-channeling “Just Stand Back” (“Here comes the knife / You better just stand back / I could turn on you so fast”) and the folk-rock “California” (“And though it breaks your heart / You had to sell the farm / Nights were just too long / With all your children gone”). To be fair, this discomfort at the heart of the innocuous has been part of the Low DNA since they first invaded and then expanded their musical niche in the mid ’90s, but this particular mutation feels squirmier, more feverish.
There are clearly discernible Low songs here, too, if a little skewed. “Silver Rider”, which most overtly embodies the aberrant hybrid of Christian allegory (Jesus, Satan, Cain, Abel) and Oedipus myth that haunts the entire album, harkens all the way back in melodic terms to the raw intimacies of yesteryear (both Secret Name and Things we Lost in the Fire come to mind), but for the fierce shimmering chorus of intertwining “la la las” (itself a variant on earlier songs such as “Starfire” and “La La La Song”), a slightly more ethereal departure. Like two enchanted snakes, Alan and Mimi’s voices defy heaven and earth with their avid and private codependence, eschewing silly gender rules and simply mesmerizing the listening heart. Similarly, “Cue the Strings” recalls the Big-O (Orbison, that is) tear-jerk melodrama of “Will the Night” as imagined by Lynch/Badalamenti. And, of course, by Low.
Then there are the Crazy Horse moments. When you hear the ferocious rusted-can guitar opening of “On the Edge Of” — and once again just prior to the three-minute point of the otherwise bucolic “When I go Deaf” — you’ll swear you can almost see Sparhawk twirling in slow motion, red-and-black plaid flannel shirt flapping ragged in the on-stage mind’s-eye hurricane.
Linking these elements — the disquieting shelter of Alan and Mimi’s more familiar vocal meanderings and the palpable need to unleash spitting shaman-demons — at their midpoint, is the song “Pissing”. Exhibiting some of their trademark patience, a lengthy buildup vaguely reminiscent of Treasure-era Cocteau Twins glows like some distant star we fail to identify as an approaching asteroid until it’s too late. Sally’s stalking bassline really ought to have been a tip off. The hollow clink of a quietly dropped bottle, likewise. But the ensuing vocal harmonies and warmly organic electronic tinkling lulls us against all our better instincts, so that, by the time the abrasive guitar yowls arrive, we’re utterly invaded, lost. The question of whether this song is a high point on the album is completely moot, because it’s a blatant career high.
What’s left to say? Well, there are good songs not even touched on yet (the antsy, understated “Death of a Salesman”), and a couple nitpicks (no solo Mimi, the four unnecessary minutes of “Broadway (So Many People)”), and an acknowledgement that based on Low’s previous work, this record is more a case of one entirely possible tangent than it is some jaw-dropping departure, but enough already. Since the conclusion already came and went early on, that’ll do now. But oh, one last thing: listen at high volume with headphones. I promise, you’ll return again and again. (Wow, did I really manage to get through this review without using the words “indie”, “rock”, or, uh-huh, “Mormon”? Damn. Well done. Yay for me.)