While Low was playing live on John Peel’s BBC radio show in England last year, an emergency back-up system kicked in without warning, momentarily replacing the group with a blast of pre-recorded, insipid pop (possibly All Saints). As Peel later explained, the system goes into operation automatically if there’s an extended period of silence resulting, for instance, from the death of the DJ on the air. Those who designed such technology obviously hadn’t considered how it might respond to Low, whose pared-down, slowcore aesthetic centers on an artful use of quiet spaces, pauses and decidedly un-rock levels of amplification.
With the assistance of producer Steve Albini, on Things We Lost in the Fire Low crafts another collection of downbeat, achingly stark songs. Threaded with slight, hymnal vocals and striking a delicate balance between dark intensity and ethereal fragility, this new material bears many of the hallmarks of Low’s sound as it has defined itself on previous releases. The coordinates here are familiar: The Velvet Underground, Simon and Garfunkel, Galaxie 500, Joy Division, The Cowboy Junkies and Mazzy Star.
But although Low’s music remains minimal in its design and beautifully snail-paced, this new release also attests to the continuing evolution of the band’s sound. Things We Lost in the Fire picks up where Low’s last recording with Albini (1999’s Secret Name) left off, progressively expanding on the band’s sparse common denominator of bass, drums and guitar. Things finds Low’s measured atmospherics and gentle melodies further enhanced by layers of instrumentation — for instance, cello, violin, piano, mellotron and trumpet. Moreover, it finds the band’s melancholy and affecting textures coalescing even more into traditional song structures.
The focal point of Low’s sound has consistently been the human voice and, on Things We Lost in the Fire, the lulling vocals of spouses Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker again take pride of place, serving as the most engaging instruments in the mix. Throughout this album — most notably on “Sunflower”, “Medicine Magazines” and “Kind of Girl” — the couple execute stunning harmonies with an emotive range that belies their quiet simplicity.
“Laser Beam”, sung by Parker, is a brief yet superbly haunting lullaby, so down-tempo that it seems just to hang in the air. On the spare “Embrace”, her voice captures and translates the melancholy swell of the string arrangement and the building tension of the unrelenting, funereal beat. Similarly compelling is Sparhawk’s delicate, almost murmured, singing on the vaguely unsettling “Whitetail”, probably the most stripped-down song on the album. With its repetitive arrangement of brushed cymbals, a suggestion of cello and a modicum of guitar and bass, this track displays little linear progression, moving not so much forward as downward to plumb the depths of some intangible menace.
While it’s impossible to locate weak points on Things We Lost in the Fire, it’s relatively easy to pick the two strongest tracks. “Closer” showcases Low at its lilting, unhurried best, the couple’s voices breathtakingly intertwined and subtly cocooned by doleful strings. “Dinosaur Act”, on the other hand, evokes a succession of controlled explosions in slow-motion, revealing a harder, distortion-scuffed edge of Low’s sound. Here, Sparhawk’s disembodied, Neil Young-esque vocals hover over the track’s ponderous bass-heavy reaches, to be joined in the pounding crescendos by Bob Weston’s trumpet as well as Parker’s dulcet harmonies.
On Things We Lost in the Fire, Low proves once again that less is indeed more. Voices are barely raised and the sound is only rarely turned up, yet the band’s understated, lingering vocal and instrumental arrangements conjure up textured, dynamic spaces whose emotive resonance speaks volumes.