Music Mondays: Low

My greatest band obsession over the last two or so years has been Low. The slowcore pioneers from Duluth, Minnesota, are one of the great, long-running bands in indie rock history.


Their catalogue can seem daunting upon first glance and obtuse on first listen. But here are some places to start, along with the reasons why this band is so great.



1. “Like a Forest” (2001)


If “Like a Forest” isn’t an absolute thrill on first listen, then Low might just not be for you. But this is the starting point for anyone who hasn’t heard of Low, because “Like a Forest” is about as surging and urgent as they get in their first eight years of existence.


“Like a Forest” is everything the band does better than just about anyone. It’s a slow-tempo ballad, made to sound big, not with lush backing instrumentation or flashy vocal performances, but instead all through restraint and tension.


The song opens with rich cello playing and soon gives way to Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s choric harmonies. Every word is pronounced to its full extent, lingered over meticulously with every syllable adding to the song’s rising tide of feeling.


It all breaks into the overwhelming, “How could I blame you / For all of the screaming / That I've had to turn to? / Just in time / To go off in my hands.” And that’s where the song ends, under two and a half minutes long. You can hardly catch your breath at the climax and suddenly the band fades out, leaving you alone and bereft of whatever solace the song briefly provided.


It’s a brilliant piece of work, and it begs to be replayed at that short runtime. “Things We Lost in the Fire” is probably still my favorite Low album too, because it’s my own entry point. The opener “Sunflower” is maybe just as great a place to start with a familiar indie folk twang to it and similarly beautiful vocals, but “Like a Forest” is even more immediate and feels unique to Low.


This song in 2001 was a kind of peak for the band too, because soon they would turn to more noise, more dissonance to accompany their stable song structures and patient tempos. It’s the last record that you could appropriately deem “slowcore,” even if that label follows them to this day.


2. “Double Negative” (2018)


Their most recent album is a great place to start, because it makes everything that came before it sound even more impressive and surprising in comparison. “Double Negative” is an exercise in breaking down sound to its bare molecules and atoms. It’s an album that shows the band looking at themselves under a microscope, taking all the pieces apart and putting them back together in a nearly unrecognizable shape.


The first thing you hear is “Quorum,” which sounds like waves of torrential rain if each droplet were the size of a single skin cell. The album still follows the band’s ethos of minimalism, heaviness and lyrical intimacy, but it’s doing so with completely new tools than Low had ever tried before. It’s not the first time they turned to electronics, but it’s the first time they let those synthetic sounds swallow them whole.


The most mesmeric piece here for me is “Tempest.” Sparhawk allows himself to be so completely subsumed in walls of distortion that his lyrics are completely indiscernible. You can find the lyrics sheet online, but looking them up almost misses the point. This is about barriers, about the ways communication becomes totally impossible when filtered through a corrupted and unnatural medium or when we become corrupted ourselves.


Low is continually interested in the space between people. How do we close that space? How does the band find new ways to breach it? And what sounds can possibly evoke a lack and loss of intimacy while still yearning for it?


3. “Over the Ocean” (1996) / “Below and Above” (1995) / “Words” (1994)


We can’t really talk about Low without going back to their roots, to the days when audiences were reported to sit down at their live shows in a strange state of meditation and spiritual connectedness.


The first three Low albums — “I Could Live in Hope,” “Long Division” and “The Curtain Hits the Cast” — are incredibly important albums for slowcore becoming a defined term, and important for the 90s dream pop sound more broadly. These are three of my favorites, and the “The Plan” and “Below and Above” show Parker at the center, rather than sharing time with Sparhawk as she often does. Her vocals are something all their own, much lighter in tone and more traditional than how Sparhawk sings.


These songs are very 90s, very sparse, but they’re not wimpy in the way that a lot of other bedroom pop of the era is. This music actually has a lot of menace, and Low in general is a band that loves tension in their songs, even if they don’t always offer a release for that tension by a song’s end.


The songs of this Low era don’t often have a clear verse-chorus structure and the dynamic shifts are subtle, but they’re there. The band is working within a space it defined for itself and that became defining for so many other bands who realized that all they needed to make a song were a few lines of poetry, an acoustic guitar and maybe some drumming to keep tempo.


This is about as small as you can get, but it’s never cloying or treacly, because there’s always something a little sinister getting ready to creep in. “Words” shows this most clearly, with Sparhawk’s voice distorted just enough that he sounds like he’s coming through an abandoned radio frequency, speak-singing lines like, “Three inches above the floor / Man in a box wants to burn my soul.”


4. “Take Your Time” → “In Silence” → “Murderer” (2007)


In the mid-2000s, Low seemed to want space in the mainstream. They made poppy, nearly uptempo jams on “Trust” in 2002 with songs like “Canada” and “Last Snowstorm of the Year.” In 2005, they made “The Great Destroyer,” a much noisier record with a much more Starbucks-friendly album cover than past iterations. Low carried this new spirit of experimentation with their sound on “Drums and Guns” in 2007.


The three song run of “Take Your Time,” “In Silence,” and “Murderer” is as exciting as Low gets at maybe any point in their career, and Sparhawk is snarling all over these songs.


“Take Your Time” is a slow burn — well, they’re all slow burns — about a girl who has had an awful night, or maybe an awful life, taking a breath during a moment of intense pain. Sparhawk calls for her to “Take your time, sweet thing,” but the delivery makes you wonder how much sympathy this narrator has for this girl. A piano bangs out a low melody, drum machines set the pace, double-tracked moaning creates a haunting atmosphere. Stick this in a horror movie and you won’t need anything to accompany its terror.


And we move straight to “In Silence,” a call to arms of sorts, though the anthem it settles on is to rebel with silence. The drumming is actually rousing at times, and Low is not a band that often uses drumming to this effect, instead often opting for gentle cymbal taps and a steady snare.


Soon, they offer “Murderer” a song that shakes me to my core. It’s essentially about the narrator seeing someone who’s wholly rotten and then offering to conspire with them: “Don't act so innocent / I've seen you pound your fists into the earth / And I've read your books / Seems that you could use another fool.”


5. “Nothing But Heart” (2011)


And finally, if none of that piques your interest, try the 70s-style rockout contained within “Nothing But Heart.” Sparhawk and Parker sing “I’m nothing but heart” over and over again as this track stretches out to over 8 minutes. Guitars build and add noise while soloing. The walls cave in.


Low sounds monumental here and maintains that heaviness and vitality after almost 30 years together.


This piece first appeared on The Collegian, thecollegianur.com.


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