In the world of music, there are very few certainties. Trends come and go, styles change, and the kids are always listening to something new (which is even more controversial and hated by parents than whatever the previous generation listened to). However, all of that is just thrown out the door when it comes to bands like Low. No matter what the case, one can always trust Low to release music that leaves the listener puzzled, befuddled, and bedazzled.
If you’re unfamiliar with Low’s music, words like “sparse,” “minimal,” “haunting,” and anything else used to describe sublime, beautiful experiences usually leap to the lips of those in love with this Minnesota trio. The foundation of Low’s music lies in using as few notes as possible, relying on what’s not there to communicate the beauty of what is there. Sounds awfully zen, doesn’t it? But all of this has been said over and over again, so why repeat it? If I were to sum up this review in two sentences, it’d be “If you like Low, you’ll love this album. If you don’t, this album might change your mind.”
On Secret Name, Low has actually written songs that can be appreciated by anyone, even those who would normally find Low’s seasonal pace maddening. Part of the reason is the fact that Low has opened up to investigate new musical terrain. We saw hints of this on The Curtain Hits the Cast with the use of keyboards, and on Songs for a Dead Pilot with the use of strings. Those two additions are even more prominent, with Low intertwining them in their normal trio of guitar, bass, and drums. But even though they’ve enlarged their palette, they’ve tightened their songwriting. All of the tracks on here clock in under 6 minutes which, for any band but Low, would be an eternity.
Unfortunately, it also means that some songs aren’t left with room to develop. And that means that some of these songs will never be remembered as Low’s finer moments (I can’t believe I actually wrote that). “Don’t Understand” with its strange loops and plodding percussion never rises above it’s own rhythm and “Days Of…” has an almost too-lethargic (which is usually never a bad thing) Mimi Parker singing but never really going anywhere. Even the opening track seems a little slow when compared with what follows.
Now that we’ve got those out of the way, we can focus on happier stuff. And we’re left with some of the most beautiful music this trio has ever written. Where to begin? Should I talk about the delicate “Weight of Water” with it’s crystalline melody and Ms. Parker’s powerful vocals? Or the gentle acoustic ballad “Soon,” which features one of Alan Sparhawk’s best vocal performances? What of the religious beauty of “Lion/Lamb” or the redone drenched-in-strings “Will The Night,” both of which sound like they should’ve been on This Mortal Coil’s Filigree and Shadow?
It’s on songs like these that Low may have made their greatest leap, writing music that’s as gorgeous as ever, but in a format that even the casual listener can enjoy. Some tracks may leave the new listener bewildered, but I challenge anyone to not find the beauty ultimately contained in these recordings.