On ‘Hey What,’ Low Expands Breathe Of Its Slowcore Sound (ALBUM REVIEW)

Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker sound like the names of a couple of early nineties shoegazers, and effectively that’s how they were regulated when they first started touring. In the shadow of the burgeoning grunge movement, their band Low sounded like a quieter and more contemplative side project from someone like Slowdive, a precursor especially to their work in Mojave 3. Sparhawk and Parker in reality, hail from Duluth, Minnesota, a city that gave the band their cold and icy minimalism as well as their midwestern directness. 

In the early 90s, the band often pushed back against another comparison, finding themselves pigeonholed into the slowcore subgenre along with the similarly sleepy groups, Codeine and Duster. Although dismissive of that label for most of their career, the band was happy to push that term as far as it could go, eventually crafting what may be the genre and certainly, the group’s magnum opus in 2001’s Things We Lost in The Fire. It wasn’t until after that that the band began to expand their sound into more disparate genres, releasing a series of hit or miss albums that steadily grew into their critical resurgence in the late aughts. In fact, on their last album 2018’s Double Negative, the band probably got the closest they’ll ever get to a sound that really approaches shoegaze. That album was hailed at the time for its inventiveness, eschewing much of the harmony and melodicism of the group’s early work in favor of evoking the same dread and depression through ambient soundscapes. But for its follow-up, the band set their sight a little higher.

Hey What is a complicated album, one that is best understood within the context of the Low discography, as most late-career albums are, but it also works as a single entity, in much the same as Double Negative did, distancing itself from the band’s oeuvre while embracing its place in their history. Unlike that album HEY WHAT is significantly more accessible, pushing the lyricism, melody and vocals to the front of the mix, while incorporating the same pulsating rhythms and discordant guitar work of their last album underneath each track. That abrasiveness is most evident on the lead-off song “White Horses”, which, while essentially a vocal track, is punctuated throughout by chipping guitar and heavy distortion. Those sounds are pushed to the point of excessive repetition, eventually devolving altogether into the backing of the following track. It’s a challenging start to the album, but one that binds it to its predecessor while demonstrating the purpose of the new album and offering a hopeful twist on the Low formula.

Low’s frustrations and angst are still evident, as they always will be, but given the state of affairs of the world, it seems Sparhawk and Parker felt the need to run contrary to that feeling of helplessness. One of the more melodic tracks here “Days Like These” chooses not to bog the listener down in platitudes but instead affirm the feelings and exasperation of the audience. Low have toed that line particularly well, while still expanding the breadth of their sound to contribute another truly great album, one that ranks among their very best.

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