March 20, 2013

Album Review: Low's The Invisible Way

As reluctant purveyors of the slowcore sound, Low have done everything in their control to keep that characterization at bay, particularly over the last decade of their nearly 20-year-long career. 2005’s The Great Destroyer vacated smaller spaces in favor of cracked sky reverb rock, later giving way to another 180 degree turn in electro-pop minimalism on 2007’s Drums and Guns, with 2011’s all-inclusive C’mon perhaps the Duluth, MN indie trio’s only sum of all wholes to date. At the center of the Low’s enduring commitment to change has been the husband-wife team of guitarist Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, who rarely allow any outsiders to severely penetrate their sound, despite a revolving door of bassists (their most recent being Steve Garrington) and mixing it up behind the boards with audio auteurs as focused as Steve Albini to Dave Fridmann’s expansionary vision.

Their 10th album, The Invisible Way, however marks a rare point in Low’s catalog where an outsider’s heady influence noticeably defines the album's atmosphere, as Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s intimate Chicago studio loft resuscitates the sleepy, solemn hymns betrothed in Low's early years. Humble and mighty might be the best way to describe it, as The Invisible Way is simple, soft and yet, starkly profound in crafting the familiar structure of Low's densely quiet displays of American gothic with just the bare essentials of acoustics and timbre at the trio's fingertips. It leaves a great deal of the tracks to rely on the power of vocals, and given the couple's warm harmonies juxtaposed by Sparhawk's black comedy ("Plastic Cup," "Clarence White") and the nakedness of Parker's spine-tingling climaxes (the forlorn ivory-keyed doom of "So Blue," the pleasured mania of "Just Make It Stop") are displays of emotionally-tugging mastery, it's a captivating 40 minutes that unravels towards its end with robust vigor ("Mother") and just one instance of electricity in "On My Own" before exiting with the lulling closing prayer "To Your Knees."

Jeff Tweedy's production refines the rustic textures of Low's modest direction here, but it's more to his quaint studio space's credit provided to the elder indie statesmen during the recording of The Invisible Way that's captured the lovelier sides of embracing peace and quiet. Low's songwriting remains as consistent as any of their past work, but for listeners who've always found themselves drawn particularly to their darker hues tailored for hushed sittings and broken up by the occasional shit-eating grin, then their 10th LP succeeds at preaching to the choir.

Low's The Invisible Way is available now on Sub Pop Records.

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