Two years on from the excellent Ones and Sixes Low have headed back down Highway 53 to Eau Claire to resume work with producer B.J. Burton (Bon Iver, James Blake) on an album which is said to be an unflinching eleven track quest to be loud, abrasive and commanding. A Low record that fights against itself....shades of 'Drums & Guns' perhaps? Once again Low move with the times. Truly always different, always the same.
Staff note from Clinton:
The office jury is absolutely all over the place when it comes to this latest Low missive. Initial impressions are that the experimentation comes at a cost to their usual deeply emotive songwriting and that the phased, distorted production is the result of one too many Ian William Craig listening sessions. We'll see though.
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The world is indeed so predictable. I confidently asserted that Double Negative would be immediately ecstatically reviewed by critics just waiting for an album that would reflect the dysfunction and confusion of modern day America. Low certainly achieves this by obliterating their sound into a billion pieces. It's like they've taken a carving knife to their previous choral sound by slathering it in effects, sonic scree and vocal manipulations (including, it has to be said autotune - something they are best advised to leave well alone).
It's bold and adventurous and much needed in these years of bewilderment. Something you can hang your hat on that might help us all through these troubled times and I thank Low from all quarters that I have for making it. There's only one problem though - I don't actually like it. I don't want the highly processed sounds of digital production to obliterate Low's beauty. It feels too....now....too explained. I'm not particularly getting on with Mimi Parker's voice on tracks like 'Fly' - high pitched and shrill. It fits in with the general aesthetic of nastiness at the core of the production here which I assume is the intention.
What it all goes to show is that people are still impressed by wild production techniques. Tracks like Tempest are just standard Low tracks slathered in scree. Had they remained unaffected then no-one would be talking about it with any interest. Always Trying To Work it Out slathers their harmonies in autotune and so should be killed at five paces. It is not a good fit.
Of course there's good stuff here. Brilliant stuff in fact. 'Dancing in Blood' is exceptional the way it moves through several phases of melody, jutting in and out of earshot like a detuned AM radio. But always be careful to judge records in how they might sound in ten years time and let's not be too hasty. I fear that Double Negative will sound like Trump. It will sound like Bon Iver's tuned production and will be an interesting but flawed footnote in their stellar career...though I'll probably be wrong.
Low have come out of their soft rock period swinging. 2016’s ‘Ones and Sixes’ obliterated the two records that had preceded it, one of them so soft and pastoral it had Jeff Tweedy in its production credits. A record in which the guitars once again scarred, much of its impact can be related to producer BJ Benton, who once again gave the band scope via the presence of those cold, open spaces they once made their home.
If ‘Ones and Sixes’ felt revitalised with old Low, it’s fair to say ‘Double Negative’ is a complete collapse of everything they’ve ever done. The last time they were this brazenly experimental was on ‘Drums & Guns’ -- a record of noisy, incidental pop music produced with aggressive pans that made listening to it uniquely painful. No record like ‘Drums and Guns’ really exists, and on this new record, it feels like Low are once again trying to capture that singularity. They actively invert their sound, foregrounding the abstractions and putting the songs out to pasture, veiled by the harsh loops, stray piano notes and dub pulsations.
It’s one of those records where I have to ask myself, ‘do I like this?’, before I can answer, ‘that’s not the point’. A record of neutral, alien tones, ‘Double Negative’ doesn’t really present you with songs to bond with as much as it does rubble to sift through. The granular, hissy production of “Tempest” joins with processed vocals and distorted piano notes -- as with much of the record, it’s all tied together by a barely there beat, which sounds more a result of engineering going awry than them actually putting it there. Except they did. Of course they did.
The more Lowish the record gets, the less convincing it becomes. Moments of self-doubt lead to tunes like “Always Trying To Work it Out”, where Parker and Sparhawk’s trademark vocal harmony comes front and centre, shattering the illusion of a band who’ve disappeared into the shadows. The lyrics are absurdly contra to the record’s cataclysmic feel: “I saw you at the grocery store, I know I should’ve walked over and said hello / seemed like you were in a hurry, I didn’t wanna slow you down”. Where’s the grocery store fitting in to this grey, voided post-world?
It’s kind of fascinating, hearing Low tell more stories about domestic life from within broken down ambient murk. But ‘Double Negative’ only works when it fully commits to its new skin. 'Double Negative' is full of intrigue: its noise is scattered to the wind for us to find. Low just need to know that when making a record like this, they need not compensate -- they need not do everything at once.
10/10 Mark 5th October 2018
I don’t write reviews but was compelled to to try and balance out what has gone before.
Make no mistake that this is Low’s masterpiece. It will be judged as such in 10, 20, 30 years time.
It is just incredible to think a band that has been around as long as Low could tackle something so bold, beautiful and daring. The amount of texture here is enough to draw you in but it is the subtle nuances and the melodies that keep you transfixed from the second the needle drops until it clicks on the runout groove.
Record of the year, hands down.
9/10 James McKenzie 2nd October 2018
I had the rare opportunity of a day to myself a few weeks ago, so for the first time in ages i dusted off my hiking boots and headed over to the Lakes. The mountains were calling me. At the top of Helvellyn, looking back down the valley i stopped for a few moments to take it all in, just to sit there quiet for a bit, no noise, no politics, no fucking social media. Clear skies and clear mind, just what the doctor ordered. The next day i was back home and the routine of work and normal life resumed but then i heard this album and have been returning to it ever since. I'm not sure why but it really struck a chord and the parallels of that day up on the top have somehow engrained themselves with this music. Almost like this was the hum coming from below, often harsh, chaotic & fragmented but at the same time layered with moments of real beauty and tenderness as if to call me back down from the mountain. I've often found solace in the records of Low, 'I Could Live In Hope', 'Long Division' & 'Things We Lost In The Fire' are some of my all time favourite music, a warm safe haven in which i could retreat. It's far too early to tell but i think think with this album they may well have just made a worthy sucessor. Providing a different kind of sanctuary, one a little more noisy and uncertain perhaps but still with those human embers burning.
8/10 Mazoué 27th September 2018
Low is one of those bands that keeps on renewing each new album. In a quarter of a century, we went from the world's slowest band (1996: The Curtain Hits the Cast) to the world's most 'chut' album (2001: Things We Lost in the Fire). Then more rhythmic and melodic compositions that made this group one of the best of this new century, including this trilogy: (2005: The Great Destroyer - 2007: Drums and Guns - 2013: The Invisible Way). With this album, Low is experimenting, maybe looking for himself at the beginning, with a daring and an out-of-the-box inspiration that, perhaps, will disappoint the first fans but that does not matter, Low assumes, Low rout, fracture, brutes and it is this effort that makes a group, its insatiable gaze turned forward. Inventive, unclassifiable and avant-garde, simply.
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