Low – The Great Destroyer

Music Reviews
Low – The Great Destroyer

The members of Low have gone a long way using their library voices. Pick the stereotype of your choice to put the backstory behind the band’s characteristic subdued sound, whether a result of its members’ snowy Minnesota origins, their Mormon faith or the domestic bliss of husband/guitarist Alan Sparhawk and wife/drummer Mimi Parker. But none of the above can do the band’s elephantine tempo and church-whisper volume justice. It’s a sparse backdrop that gives every string-pluck and whisper the weight of a police siren.

But if modern art museums have taught me anything, it’s that you can have too much minimalism, and after ten years Low seems to have come to the same conclusion. To seemingly force its hand in this matter, the band hired producer Dave Fridmann, best known for his work on late orchestral-period Flaming Lips albums, to mind the microphones and switches for The Great Destroyer. Thus, Fridmann—much coveted for his trademark heavy drum sound and lush arrangements-is pitted against a drummer with a three-piece kit and a band known for taking the notes-not-played trope to heart. Indie fite!

Fortunately for Low, the ensuing sparks are hot enough to forge its finest album in years, an effort jarring in its departure from the band’s previous work (read: the purists will loathe it) but exposing hitherto unknown endowments unexplored under the usual formula. Fridmann juices Parker’s drums like a BALCO salesman and ramps up the noise by giving Sparhawk free reign to indulge his Neil Young fixation, raining down notes with a ferocious tone cribbed from “Cortez the Killer” bootleg jams.

Hence the album opens with very uncharacteristic laser-noise keyboards and tribal drums, and two songs later Parker sounds like she’s providing the beat by hitting trash cans with hockey sticks. Sparhawk gets more use out of his effect pedals than ever, wrenching out ghastly sheets of noise during “Everybody’s Song” and a tinnitus fuzz on “When I Go Deaf.” Fridmann even summons one of his canned orchestras for a track, the self-consciously titled “Cue the Strings.”

This almost confrontational nature permeates the album to the point where The Great Destroyer comes off like it’s the band’s almost-suicide note. After all, “When I Go Deaf” finds Sparhawk wistfully imagining that hearing loss will mean “I’ll stop writing songs,” and “Death of a Salesman” paints a vivid picture of a fanbase-induced musical rut, culminating in the popular guitar-burning imagery. Not exactly “(We’re an) American Band.”

So songs like “California” and “Walk Into the Sea,” by far the sunniest, poppiest material Low has ever produced, shatter the mopey mold the band has so carefully cultivated, and to thrilling results. Perhaps Low’s most characteristic element, the eerily-entwined harmonies of Sparhawk and Parker, surprisingly take on extra emotional weight in this new environment, as their voices strain engagingly to match the band’s newfound volume. No longer content to sedate, or to be the band with the most appropriate moniker ever, Low destroys itself only to rebuild, renovate and escape from the library.

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