I always have to be careful whenever I start talking about Low. It’s easy to start ranting about the sublime beauty of their music, that the only reason people don’t understand the trio’s subtle genius is because they’re just too lazy. Low’s music requires patience, and only those who are willing to take the time to listen will uncover the group’s beauty… or so I always say. Yadda yadda yadda… But even while doing so, I sometimes forget that, as much I love Low, sometimes one does find their music rather, well, unexciting.
Now, before Low fanatics (a delightful paradox, since Low’s music seems as unlikely as any to sponsor fanaticism) start frothing at the mouth, let’s get a few things straight. Low’s music is the perfect example of just how less can be more, no one’s arguing that. It’s staggering to think that songs this bare can be as beautiful as they sometimes are. And I’m firmly convinced that Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have the most beautiful vocal pairing in all of indie-dom. Furthermore, it’s amazing at just how much mileage they’ve gotten out of their seemingly limited formula — guitar, bass, a stripped down drumkit, and those beautiful voices. But over the course of 6 albums and several EPs, they’ve consistently matured and developed into something resembling an barebones orchestra.
But I challenge even the most fanatical Low fan to say that they don’t sometimes find Low old hat. I’ve been listening to Low for years, and I consider them one of my favorite groups. And I know that when I see them in April, I’ll be in rapt attention the whole time. But there are those times where I just wander when Low’s music is going to cease developing, when they’re about to reach the end of what they can do with their “formula”. One wonders when they’ll get trapped in their musical stylings.
Well, perhaps “trapped” is the wrong term. As “limiting” as their musical approach may be, they always sound so darn self-assured, so proficient in their music? You just know that Low will continue to be putting out album after album, oblivious to what others are saying, faithfully following their muse. And isn’t that what’s it’s supposed to be about? And so I find it funny when other critics (including myself) complain about Things We Lost in the Fire sounding like just another Low album. After all, what did we expect?
If Low sometimes seems a little staid, there’s always been a peculiar wholesomeness to their music. Their music feels as if it exists somewhere out of step with our modern world, the pace completely incongruous with the speed at which everyday life operates. And there’s always a certain beauty to that, like a fly trapped in amber. Sometimes, it feels like the only standard by which to judge a Low album by their previous releases. Of all of their releases, Things We Lost in the Fire is closest to Secret Name, which saw the band opening up their stripped down style and start embracing a more pop-oriented feel (with “pop” being used in the loosest sense). Horns and strings started making an appearance (feeling like they should’ve been there from the start), and their music started to get a little less obtuse.
Things We Lost in the Fire doesn’t change much from Secret Name’s feel. If anything, it feels more accomplished and developed. One can sense that from the beginning, as “Sunflower” explodes into one of the most radio-friendly songs Low has ever written. But any sense that this is just a little pop ditty is gone with the first words (“When they found your body/Giant X’s on your eyes”). Nothing like adding a little menace to the mix. But it’s still beautiful with the building strings that accompany Sparhawk and Parker on the refrain. “Dinosaur Act” continues the sound, although on a more bombastic tip, with its booming drum and haunting organ.
Another oddity to Low’s music is the sense of anxiety and urgency that lies just below the surface. It’s in their lyrics, with compelling and surreal lines like “And putting your foot down/The nail shot up like a bright red snowflake” (“Dinosaur Act”) or “Wish I could keep your little body/In metal” (“In Metal”). It’s in the way their music plods along, lulling you into a sense of security, until it explodes in a flurry of voices and guitar (“Embrace”), or just settles around you like newly fallen snow and gradually becomes a raging blizzard (“Whitetail”). Whatever it is, it proves that Low are still the masters of pacing. No one stretches a song out quite like they do, which means stretching it until it threatens to break, and releasing it just before it does.
I’d be lying if I said that part of me was expecting more, that there’s part of me that, after all of these years, still feels out of step with Low’s music. And I suspect that there always will be. There was a time when I would’ve ranted and raved about Low until I was blue in the face, but not now. But I don’t know what else to expect. And that’s the troubling thing, and it’s doubly hard writing about a group that you have such deep respect and admiration for.
There are critics who roast Low for doing what the trio does best, as if they expected them to be musical chameleons. But there are also critics who heap glories on Low just because it seems like the thing to do. Part of me agrees with the former, and part of me agrees with the latter. But somehow I doubt that any of this debate matters to Low. They’d probably find the whole thing silly and trivial, and just go back to doing what they do best. And when the dust settles, the only thing that really needs to be said is that this another Low album, and you know exactly what you’re going to get, and in the end that may be all we really need.