Duluth, Minnesotta is termed the “San Francisco of the Midwest” for the hills that rise from Lake Superior nearly a thousand feet into the air from the water’s edge. The air is moist, cool, misty in the summer and frigid in the winter. Duluth, the town where the Rust Belt started with the first tinge of copper colored oxidation tarnishing the industrial prowess that had strengthened the Great Lakes region for over a hundred years in the American Midwest. In this beautifully cold town, full of artistic energy, one can imagine husband and wife duo Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker as they mobilize to their rehearsal space to write The Invisible Way.
Buckling his guitar up in its tour-scarred case, Alan would throw on a second jacket to face the freezing wind and set off on foot to ascend the streets rustling with the movement of fallen leaves colored gold and maroon, fingers red and blistered. Mimi would come along 5 paces behind warming her angelic voice with simple melody hymns, carrying a couple parts at a time of her sparse drum kit: floor tom, snare, hi-hat, two soft spoken padded mallets. It’s here that these two veterans, with relative newcomer Steve Garrington on bass, would craft their 10th studio album The Invisible Way (Sub Pop, 2013). Low continues their signature moody, dark indie folk and alt country that consistently quells the spirit and leaves the listener pensive as hell.
This album, incidentally, was actually recorded in Chicago, which was their first time doing the recording outside of Duluth. Under the tasteful production chops of Wilco front-man Jeff Tweedy, the leveling brings out the folk’iness qualities and really helps narrate the stories told by Sparhawk and Parker’s vocals. Equally emotive as the vocals are the backing instrumental arrangements: the essential guitar playing prowess and the softened drum sections that have held Low in good stead for very many years. Low has a knack for enriching their sparse tracks with great momentum. Embellishing keys here and there. Little flourishes of guitar picking intermixed with Sparhawk’s pedestrian sounding vocals that help propel his sentiments outward onto the listener. There are times other bands would have pushed for horns, strings, struck idiophones, what have you. But Low keeps it sparse, keeps a sense of space, moving to crescendo only with vocals and their instruments of choice. This really endows the record with a sense of singular focus and unity.
Low’s “So Blue”
This sound is the perfect garment for the feeling of disenchantment heard in the vocals. ‘I know I shouldn’t be afraid / You think it’s pretty, oh no I am a raging river / I’ll cut through your city, just like destroying angels’, Sparhawk sings with beautiful fervor on “Clarence White.” This kind of illustrative lyric is typical of the band’s writing sensibilities and provides a sense of their mindset whilst writing these songs in Duluth. The duo harmonizes infrequently but when they do it’s chilling; ‘You hide, you always hide / So deep inside the amethyst mind / The color bleeds and fades to white / What used to be a violet mind’, they sing on “Amethyst”, the record’s second track and one of the breathtaking moments on the album that is exemplar of their strength in causing a swell of pensive reflection within the listener. There are dozens more moments like this, it is beautiful and exceptional in its power but the album literally sounds like Major Depressive Disorder put into music. Which, depending on where your head is at, can be the best or worst thing on the planet when you throw a Low record on.
“Clarence White” and “Amethyst” are excellent tracks and fortunately the album is flush of very strong tracks. Album opener “Plastic Cup” starts out with an excellent unexpected diminished minor chord change right from the start and describes Sparhawk’s oddly humorous musing on drug testing. “Four Score” carries the a sinister piano and bassline staccato syncopation that initially recalls the incredible Gary Jules rendition of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World.” Penultimate track “On My Own” finds Sparhawk turning up the drive and letting the guitar rip a bit and the track continues on with a very compelling drone inspired instrumental segment for 3 minutes with the only vocals being a wonderful descending melodic scale “happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday.” If the track is somewhat of a Yo La Tengo homage, it still feels fresh of its own accord placed on such a hushed, sparse record.
However, there are a couple tracks that can be difficult to listen all the way through more than once or twice. The track “So Blue” has a gorgeous melody line in the verses but the second half of the song grates on the ears with this repetitively sustaining mid-C in the vocals. Album closer “To Our Knees” seems to lack much direction and it falls disappointingly flat for an album closer on a record as emotionally riveting as this one.
Ultimately, Low wins with this album. They have proven to be veterans in this style of music and their influence can be heard in many contemporary bands that have doubtlessly been inspired by Low’s dynamics of hushed, emotive indie rock. It is difficult for bands to imitate the weight of the music with the instrumental dynamics Low plays with, and Low still seems to be the reigning genre leaders. Perhaps this is due to their creative process, perhaps Sparhawk’s battle in the past with depression. Perhaps it’s indicative of the streets they walk and the frosted views of Lake Superior from every vantage point in their hilly city. Their music seems to manifest, in sound, their hometown’s beautiful visuals that belies the bitter downslide of the town’s industrial integrity and commercial strength over the last 5 decades, a feeling of quiet reflection and perhaps some resentment of the human condition. Their shows are known to be hushed events, for the music demands as much deference as a Duluth flood or blizzard would. The Invisible Way is no different and will likely gratify old fans and earn new ones for the Minnesota band that plays as cold as the wind rustles the fallen golden leaves up the hills.
Written by Case Newsom