Given the often-glacial pace of their music, it’s tempting to think that Low is perpetually stuck in a rut. Indeed, that’s probably the biggest criticism leveled at Low’s music, and one that’s been there ever since I Could Live in Hope. But on the contrary, not only is the trio — Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, and new bassist Matt Livingston — the group that is most identified with the “slowcore” genre, they are also the its most adventurous outfit, constantly pushing the genre’s boundaries.
Most folks probably identify Low with such classic albums as I Could Live in Hope and The Curtain Hits the Cast, albums that are as slowcore as it gets, full of glacial melodies, elegiac atmospheres, and Sparhawk and Parkers’ heartbreaking vocal harmonies. But the group has also experimented with orchestral flourishes (Secret Name), more rock-oriented song-writing (The Great Destroyer), and even abstract electronica and drum n’ bass (the Bombscare EP).
Which brings us to Drums and Guns, the group’s most experimental and demanding release since Songs for a Dead Pilot, and one of the most intriguing and gripping of their fourteen-year career.
Many of the elements usually associated with Low’s music — Sparhawk’s fragile and dextrous guitar-playing, Parker’s stark drumming — have been toned down or stripped away altogether. The music has been reduced to its most spartan elements, and has rarely sounded as naked or exposed as it does here. The songs here sound like they were recorded in a white-walled room with a single incandescent bulb hanging from above, throwing everything into absolutely stark contrast.
Furthering this extreme ethic, much of the album is recorded such that the sounds are pushed to the far left or right of the spectrum. Listening to Drums and Guns on headphones can sometimes be a bit disorienting, as the urgent vocals — which sing the group’s most bitter and desperate lyrics to date — come in one ear while the unsettling music, which seems to consist only of gloomy pianos, creepy drum programming, and various samples, comes pounding into the other. (This direction is even more striking when you realize that Dave Fridmann, best known for the colorful, expansive sound he brought to records by The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev, produced the comparatively barren Drums and Guns.)
At times, it’s enough to send one running to the lush, majestic soundscapes of Low’s earlier albums. There’s no midrange, no safe middle ground here on Drums and Guns. Which plays in perfectly to the album’s urgent lyrical content, content born out of an increasing mental anxiety over the current state of world affairs.
“Pretty People” begins the album with the buzz of static and barely heard radio signals — not exactly the warmest or most inviting sounds. Sparhawk’s voice comes crying out of the left channel, stark and cold as the Minnesota wind, his lyrics nothing but doom: “All the soldiers/They’re all gonna die/All the little babies/They’re all gonna die… All you pretty people/You’re all gonna die.” Parker’s single drum eventually begins underscoring Sparhawk’s tenor from the other channel, its booming a hammer driving the nails in even further.
“Breaker” is the album’s first single, though it’s probably the most unlikely single of 2007 (watch the video). A tinny drum machine beat, some handclaps, and a piercing organ back up Sparhawk as he laments, Ecclesiastes-style, “Our bodies break/And the blood just spills and spills/But here we sit debating math/It’s just a shame/My hand just kills and kills/There’s gotta be an end to that.” Parker’s familiar voice ghosts by in the background, but does little to add any warmth. Instead, a roiling, turbulent e-bowed guitar erupts out of the song’s midsection, tearing it asunder.
At times, the album takes on a more pensive note, as on “Dragonfly,” but only becomes more haunting, unsettling, and gripping as a result. Sparhawk and Parker sing about pills and the thousand eyes of a dragonfly, and somehow it becomes a metaphor for both personal mental anguish and the sad unfolding of world history (“The lines of history/Some things should never be”).
Sparhawk’s guitar twists and writhes as if seeking to break free from the duo’s gloomy forecast, but the tumbling percussion clattering in the background ties it down. Given the song’s mournful tone, it’s tempting to imagine those rhythmic sounds as something almost macabre — stacks of coffins falling over, perhaps? — and the assembly line-like repetition underscores the futility within the song’s final lines: “Why do we even try?/There’s no such thing as dragonfly pills… Oh dragonfly/Maybe you’re right.” Altogether, it makes for what might be the most depressing and haunting song of 2007.
Low’s songs have always been ambiguous, with just enough for listeners to latch onto and conjure up all manner of interpretations. This time, however, things seem a little bit more obvious and pointed than the band’s usual cryptic content.
Much of the album could be construed as criticism of the current war in Iraq along with the Bush administration. Ghosts of dead soldiers loom in the background, “Your Poison” warns “the chief” that “you cut what you reap with your poison,” “In Silence” sings of deserts and laments “They filled our hearts and hands with violence,” and “Murderer” finds Sparhawk confessing to God “You may need a murderer/Someone to do your dirty work… Seems that you could use another fool/Well I’m cruel.”
However, drawing such one-for-one parallels might be a bit limiting. The more I listen to Drums and Guns, the less I’m convinced that it’s a condemnation of one particular president or war, and more an indictment of the world’s current course of action as a whole. It may have its roots in a particular set of current events, but its shadow looms much larger and its themes run much deeper.
Earlier this year, the Arcade Fire released their critically-acclaimed Neon Bible, an album that serves as a wake up call, a desperate plea for change and renewal. As odd as it seems, I think that Drums and Guns would make for a perfect b-side to Neon Bible. Both albums seem to be coming from similar places and seem to be touching on similar themes. Both are, in their own ways, cries for help in a world gone mad, a world torn apart by warfare both physical and spiritual.
But whereas Arcade Fire go for bombast, with fiery, passionate music and Butler’s howling, wild-eyed vocals, Low, of course, take a subtler, and in some ways, more affecting tack. And while Win Butler’s voice might be the more expressive and bombastic, Sparhawk’s anguished pleas prove more chilling, more capable of getting under the skin and lodging themselves in the subconscious — more capable, in some ways, of expressing the horrors that we face and all too often turn a blind eye to.
Those who praised Low for taking a slightly more accessible, rock-inflected route with The Great Destroyer, who praised the band for kicking up their heels and picking up the pace, will likely be disappointed with Drums and Guns. But Low, as they ever have, remain an ultimately elusive and uncompromising act, especially within the perceived limitations of “their” genre. Hearing them push their slowcore aesthetic once again is exciting and challenging, and the result is one of the best albums of 2007 so far, as well as one of the best albums of their career.