Music

Low: The Great Destroyer

David Antrobus

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.


Low

The Great Destroyer

Label: Sub Pop
US Release Date: 2005-01-25
UK Release Date: 2005-01-24
Amazon
iTunes

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.)

9

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image