The first time I heard Low’s new one, it was through an online stream– and while the album ultimately won me over in a big way, I have to say that this is the absolute worst context in which to savor the music of these slow-burn champs. Low’s music, it seems to me, has always thrived on turning the intimate into the epic; their best songs are the ones that take little details and blow them into melodrama, that layer simplicity into something sweeping, that conjur a thunderous sense of quiet. When I think of all the great Low songs, I remember them for their words and melodies, but also for little sonic details– for the shake and jangle of a tambourine, perhaps, or for the deep Neil Young-style harmonics. These are the kinds of things that simply don’t pack the same punch when you’re hearing them through tinny laptop speakers.
And it seems to me that this might be especially true in the case of C’mon. Or at least, as true as ever: The Duluth crew recorded this one in a church, not because it’s sacred music but because it positively luxuriates in the powerful dynamics afforded by that kind of setting. This one’s got all of the Low hallmarks– booming slow-burn epics and twinkling lullabies– and it’s got none of the steely chill of Drums and Guns; this one’s all about warmth, about sheer sonic pleasure.
Which is not to say that it’s a feel-good album; actually, there’s a level of torment present in these songs that’s even more profoundly unsettling than the material on Drums and Guns, if for no other reason than that record– an album-length meditation on the Iraq War– was able to keep a level of distance between singer and song that this one never quite achieves; tellingly, it is also a very different beast than The Great Destroyer, on which the songs employed a sort of quasi-mythical slant that drew the attention of one Robert Plant. C’mon, however, comes with a title that beckons the listener closer, drawing us in to hear a series of whispered secrets, conversations and internal monologues that aren’t meant for our ears. And what we hear is a great deal of pain; it’s not a divorce album, exactly– and let me rush to say that I’m not aware of any strictly autobiographical projections from Alan Sparhawk or Mimi Parker, the married couple at the band’s core– but it is, I think, an exploration of the trials and hardships that come with maintaining a long-term relationship. (Sparhawk, in a pre-release interview,
The songs are all fractured at their core; though none of them are break-up songs per se– with the noteworthy exception of “Done,” which boasts one of the most heartbreaking closing lines I’ve heard in ages– they stack up a litany of little details that, in true Low fashion, form a bigger picture. Their sharpness comes in their subtlety. The opening number, “Try to Sleep,” comes on like a lullaby, twinkling bells and all. But there’s an undercurrent of menace that seems to grow more toxic every time you play the thing; Sparhawk’s admonition not to look at the camera seems to speak to a desire to put on a brave public face despite deep emotional damage.
There are some vintage, slow-burning Low epics here, and they’re tremendous. “Nothing But Heart” repeats its title phrase over and over, like a mantra, and in the context of this album it feels like a pained confession. “Majesty/Magic” is even better, rich in all the group’s usual dynamic and harmonic variations and in those small sonic details that provide their music with its grit and its tension.
But I find myself drawn in even more by some of the more pop-oriented material, and in particular by Mimi Parker’s numbers. She does one in the middle of the album called “Especially Me,” and it sounds to me like a pretty perfect pop song– right down to the opening “cry me a river” reference– but beneath the sheer beauty of the thing there’s a feeling of something like pure desperation– or at least utter directionless– that’s as quietly devastating as anything here. It’s one of their best-ever lyrics: “Cause if we knew where we belong/ There’d be no doubt where we’re from/ But as it stands, we don’t have a clue/ Especially me and probably you.”
Sparhawk, for his part, shines largely because his songs express deep emotion through his own idiosyncratic language, which is sometimes confessional and sometimes humorous, or else downright weird. As to the former, there’s a song here called “$20″ that just might be a plea for reconciliation– or at least some kind of empathy– that provides one of the most heartfelt and utterly wrenching moments here. As for the latter– well, “Witches” is C’mon‘s lone foray into Great Detroyer-styled myth-making; exactly what it means I couldn’t say just yet, though it does feature Sparhawk lashing out at men who “act like Al Green.” I’m not sure why that’s a bad thing, exactly, but it seems to make him feel rather insecure.
And of course, “Witches” is just a moment among many here, its Al Green line just one of the little things that stack up into something that feels like another epic from Low at the top of their game. The difference this time is that, beneath the sheer grandeur of the music, the scale is really very tiny. Sparhawk and Parker sound like two lovers singing to each other, possibly from opposite sides of the same room. It’s deeply moving, personal human drama, whether it’s played out through thundering quiet or through the tiniest of details.