Having cemented their signature sound around the turn of the century, Low has spent the last decade branching out from it. On 2005’s The Great Destroyer, the Duluth trio bid farewell to vast empty spaces and long silences under the guidance of maximalist producer Dave Fridmann, who returned for 2007’s even more audacious Drums and Guns, an album as violent and percussive as its title. And though the group seemed to play to familiar strengths on 2011’s C’mon, that album still stood as one of their richest, more diverse works, a testament to how vast their playbook had grown.
So after three albums so confident, it’s a disappointment to hear the band retreat into their old shell on their latest, The Invisible Way. Produced without distinction by Jeff Tweedy—who, for all of his experiments with Wilco, should never be mistaken for Jim O’Rourke—the record casts Low as the soft-sighing, molasses-slow stargazers they’ll always be remembered as, not the significantly bolder group they’ve become. There’s something dispiriting about witnessing a band submit to their reputation, especially after they’ve spent nearly half of their career fighting it.
Blame singer-guitarist Alan Sparhawk for the regression. Over the last couple of years, Sparhawk has dedicated ever more of his time to Retribution Gospel Choir, a side project that lets him live out his rock fantasies. Perhaps as a result, he seems absolutely checked out here. His contributions are some of the thinnest he’s ever offered, with the lifeless opener “Plastic Cup” and languid “Amethyst” coasting without payoff.
Sparhawk’s apparent detachment is a mixed blessing. It’s made room for drummer Mimi Parker to take the lead on five of Invisible Way’s 11 tracks—an overdue promotion, and a well-earned one, given that her voice has never been stronger or more sure. But while Parker showcases like “So Blue” and “Just Make It Stop” hold their own with the band’s very best, they can’t completely compensate for Sparhawk’s dreary contributions. If Low is a tricycle, then Invisible Way finds them slowed by one seriously flat tire.