Low 2021
Photo: Nathan Keay / Courtesy of Sub Pop Records

Low’s ‘HEY WHAT’ Could Use Some Drums

Low’s new album HEY WHAT improves upon the experimental Double Negative but has a somewhat predictable formula and mostly lacks drums.

Sub Pop
10 September 2021

Low‘s 2018 album Double Negative was an often unpleasant set of songs that discarded many of the hallmarks the band had developed in the previous quarter of a century. That it was also among the most critically well-received albums of the group’s career likely revealed more about the way Double Negative confronted the challenges of its time, with chaos responding to chaos, than it did about the quality of the music. Double Negative certainly was bold, with Ones and Sixes (2015) producer B.J. Burton returning to demolish Low’s previous conception of songcraft.

Double Negative was a sharp turn, yet it would be inaccurate to point to Double Negative as the most noteworthy sonic overhaul in Low’s career. One key factor to Low’s longevity has been the rotation of producers — including Kramer, Steve Albini, and Dave Fridmann — whose skills have sent Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s songs in different directions, regularly resetting the parameters for what is possible in the band’s aural landscape. Accompanying these shifts of producers is a sense of experimentation. Each producer stays with the band for two or three albums, as if on a mutual search for the sweet spot where songwriting and production style cohere. Sometimes they succeed in this quest, and at other times, they plateau and part ways. These cycles have resulted in the tendency for Low’s albums to alternate in quality.

For example, at the center of Low’s discography is the Fridmann-recorded Great Destroyer (2005), which featured some of Sparhawk and Parker’s most enduring songs. The next outing, Drums and Guns (2007), also produced by Fridmann, was underwhelming, which set the stage for the reenergized C’mon (2011), with another disappointment arriving in The Invisible Way (2013), and so on. Within this framework, the daring but disappointing Double Negative has given way to a subsequent stronger effort, new release, HEY WHAT.

In part, HEY WHAT is a satisfying listen because the band have, in their own words, reinstated the “hooks” and “harmonies” that were often missing from the dismantled Double Negative. From the opening song “White Horses” onward, the duets are familiar and full of personality, with Parker’s voice frequently lingering after the terser Sparhawk has quieted. In general, the lyrics of this album are also more discernable.

“White Horses” continues an approach to rhythm consistent with the band’s Burton-produced albums, in which traditional or acoustic drum sounds are mostly absent. In “White Horses”, the percussive sound is staccato static or distortion that might have originated with a guitar recording. From a mixing perspective, the bulk of the song features distorted guitars that sound entirely in the red. As the song ends, the percussive sound speeds up to set the tempo for the brisk “I Can Wait”. There is a seamless transition between songs, a technique that recurs between many tracks, creating a continuity that encourages listening to the album as a whole.

Joining the approach to minimal rhythm and heavy distortion is Sparhawk’s commitment to “drone, not drones”, appearing in several songs. Guitar or otherwise ambient textures occasionally break through within the loud mixes to provide some kind of counterpoint and to link one piece to another. These contrasts and overlaps suggest that the signature contemplation and tranquility of Low still exist underneath the new, provocative layers that Burton has drawn out of the band.   

An especially rewarding link to the conventions of Low’s past is the use of oceanic themes, variations of which could be traced throughout the group’s discography. One memorable early instance includes The Curtain Hits the Cast (1996) standout “Over the Ocean”. The singers/characters floated across various terrains before returning to a position above the water. The Great Destroyer‘s melancholic “Walk into the Sea” (one of the most excellent songs Low ever produced) saw them descending from the overhead view and stepping into the ocean.

That immersion continues on HEY WHAT, as the group now promotes the entire set of songs with aquatic imagery: “break[ing] through the chaos like a life raft. Layers of distorted sound accrete with each new verse – building, breaking, colossal then restrained, a solemn vow only whispered.” The lyrics to one of the album’s singles, “Disappearing”, begins with “Somewhere out on the ocean, across the waves” and end beholding “the constant face of the unknown unknown”. Rumsfeldian associations aside, this viewpoint confirms the ocean and its horizon as Low’s infinite wellspring of inspiration.

Another longstanding theme of Low’s output that is present on HEY WHAT concerns the advance of time and how time beats down or destroys even the most innocent among us. While 1997 single “If You Were Born Today (Song For Little Baby Jesus)” remains the most memorable expression of that theme, HEY WHAT‘s first single and overall best song, “Days Like These”, observes that being caught off guard by a degraded modern condition is itself part of a cycle. The song, which kicks off the second half of the album, offers the set’s widest variety of sounds and modes, appropriate given the suspense and surprise expressed in the lyrics. “All Night” is also noteworthy for its framing of combat and conflict, which might refer to an inner struggle, a spousal dispute, or even Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis: “All night you fought the adversary / it was no ordinary fight.”

Despite these intriguing connections between words, music, and the band’s history, Low’s commitment to an ebb-and-flow sound is both HEY WHAT‘s primary signature and chief shortcoming. In the 1990s, few could have predicted that Low would be capable of an album with recording and mixing choices this audacious and abrasive. Noise artists have been creating sounds like this for decades, with last year’s Death to All Humans by MOVIEREVIEW (Colin Marston) being an utterly uncompromising example of the sort.

However, it is only every few years that a rock or pop album capitalizes on a fully blown-out sound in the way Low have done here. Some similar cases from modern rock history include Guitar Wolf’s Jet Generation (1999), Primal Scream’s “Accelerator” (2000), and Sleigh Bells’ Treats (2010), an album released only a few months after Yeasayer’s “The Children”, a song that (along with the Knife’s Silent Shout) remains the absolute gold standard for the kind of vocal manipulation Burton has more subtly introduced into Low’s toolkit. The problem is that Low and Burton’s quiet-loud, clean-distorted alternations become a bit predictable after a while.

Additionally, the lack of drums on most of HEY WHAT significantly detracts from the increased dynamism these songs might have otherwise possessed. Even at Low’s most stripped-down and slow-paced, Parker’s drums were a fundamental part of the music’s identity. Perhaps Sparhawk, Parker, and Burton calculated that the much busier and noisier approach of HEY WHAT reduces the need for conventional drums or percussion, but the effect is incompleteness.

One related contemporary outcome from Kanye West’s DONDA listening experiences in July and August 2021 is that concentrating listeners’ and other producers’ attention on recordings in progress revealed a demand for more drums. It’s a reaction West and producer Mike Dean appear to have taken into account, as subsequent versions of DONDA songs have been heavier on beats. For all HEY WHAT‘s oceanic power, it is unfortunate that Low overlooked other potential sources of rhythm. As James Hetfield memorably said to an aimless Lars Ulrich in Some Kind of Monster, “I’m used to having the drummer do the beat part…holding it together.” That is not bad advice for Low and Burton to consider if they continue their collaboration.  

RATING 7 / 10