I’ll get the obvious out of the way and say that this is a wonderful album. I really enjoyed Low’s last album, 2011’s C’mon, but this is better. I’m a big fan of Mimi Parker’s vocal contribution; the fact that she sings lead (and her own accompaniment at times) on the majority of The Invisible Way might make me biased in this album’s favour, but I genuinely believe that whether you hear the tracks individually as singles or as an entire work from start to finish, Parker doesn’t dominate so much as add another strand to Low’s continual, if minimal, evolution of their sound. Then there’s the fact that Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame produced the album. Low’s delicate sound, then, is in very good and capable hands.
Yet for all the plus points, the album starts on an odd note with Plastic Cup; a rumination on a life of excess turned straight and narrow via rehab and drug testing, where the ‘plastic cup’ of the title comes in. Alan Sparhawk takes a standard refrain of rock lyricism and turns it into a philosophical lament on what will truly last, albeit with some unusual lyrical tangents before coming to an abrupt stop with a direct address to “write your own damned song, and move on.” There’s always been tension in Low’s music, but especially in their most recent output, from the bare-teethed aggressive sound on The Great Destroyer to a place approaching breaking point that certain songs on C’mon inhabit. This tension is pushed further on The Invisible Way and particularly on the tracks where Mimi Parker takes the spotlight.
A lot of reviewers will attribute the country flecked gospel sound on tracks like Holy Ghost to the influence of Wilco via Jeff Tweedy, but I think it’s just a natural progression of the tracks Parker wrote on C’mon. Holy Ghost starts with a solo vocal and sparse acoustic guitar before, very gradually, Parker’s voice grows and the piano comes in – the layers of music building around an almost uncomfortably personal meditation on a crisis of faith before these layers are slowly removed again, leaving a raw and exposed voice at the song’s end. Honestly, if the ‘Wilco influence’ can be heard anywhere it’s more likely than not on Clarence White which features handclaps, false stops and is the ‘fullest’ sounding track in that it strays furthest from the relatively stripped back sound found elsewhere on the album.
I can’t even talk about Just Make It Stop without getting chills. I like listening to Radio 6 in the office, and in the middle of an interview with Parker and Sparhawk they played Just Make it Stop and the general response could be summed up by one listener’s response: “When the song came on, I had to stop what I was doing and sit down and listen and just cry.” The lyrics are brilliant in that they manage to be very general and yet so extraordinarily specific at the same time. When Parker sings “If I could just make it stop/ I could tell the whole world/ to get out of the way/ if I could just make it stop,” there’s no reference to what ‘it’ is so it allows the listener to project their own ‘it’ onto the song. It applies to everyone at the same time, and in a way that’s what makes the song so emotionally devastating. I imagine most of us have that one demon that we wish would ‘just stop’, that holds us back. I could praise the way Parker wrote this song for the whole review and I would still manage to ignore the fact that it’s the album’s fastest song, and yet another where Parker layers her vocals to great effect. In particular the multiple layers of her voice lend to the theme of personal demons and multiple aspects of the self splitting in different directions.
Perhaps I’m over-egging Parker’s importance on this album, but at the same time it’s extremely difficult to ignore her increased contribution, and in doing so it’s very easy to underplay Sparhawk’s presence on the album. There’s the absolutely fantastic On My Own, a minimalist piece until just over two minutes in when he rewrites the meaning of dirge. This is durge. It’s also one of the very few places on the album where the guitar takes a stranglehold on the track and twists it until it gets to a point where you start to believe it’s almost impossible for anyone to play anything that slowly. It’s hypnotic and weaving as Sparhawk’s voice comes back in, with a refrain that starts off by sounding like “I’ve been lucid” and eventually melds into “Happy Birthday”. Strange but brilliant, like most of the tracks where Sparhawk takes the lead.
The Invisible Way is the band’s tenth album of their twenty year career. It’s a relatively low-key affair for what many would consider something of a milestone, but this doesn’t mean Low have chosen to mark the occasion with a whimper. I think to do something bombastic would be uncomfortably out of character for a band who have forged their sound from a down tempo melancholic confessionalism. Instead, what we have is an intimate record; small in physical stature but with a lot of soul.
The Invisible Way by Low is out on the 18th of March via Sub Pop Records.