Slowcore. If your band of choice favors meandering soundscapes, glacial atmospheres, or plodding tempos, odds are good that the s-word has appeared more than once in reviews of their albums. If said band is Low, then the term seems particularly banal; for all of the hypnotic melodies, quaking textures, and riveting harmonies that husband/wife team Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have actualized over the course of 17 years and 8 LPs, there’s been unfair attention paid to their flair for taking more than 5 minutes (eons in pop music) to get to the damn point. We’ve long been a society of instant gratification, and ever since fugacious temptations like news feeds, Youtube, and tweeting metastasized in our pop culture jargon, it’s become increasingly arduous to take pleasure in music that – though listless on the surface – is arresting in its gently percolating layers.
So, yes – C’mon, the ninth addition to the Low canon, is slow. Or at least it will sound that way to the casual 21st century listener. “Slow” is really just a synonym for “unhurried,” but anyone trying to download new apps on their iPad or update their Facebook status while reading this review is fully aware that the word is also a connotation for “boring” and “old.” What a sham; anyone who dismisses Low with such hackneyed language is missing out on one of our generation’s greatest musical delights. In all truthfulness, the slackened pace of the group’s music has more to do with the vocal performance of Sparhawk and Parker than it does the pulse of each song. Whether the trio – which recently promoted bass player Steve Garrington to fulltime employment – is grooving at 60 or 140 BPM, the vocals tend to have a mesmerizing way of guising everything beneath. It’s not unlike when a thick fog rolls in; the serene beauty of the landscape is the same, regardless of the rolling hills or steely metropolis lurking beneath.
Recorded in a church in the band’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, C’mon announces itself with “Try to Sleep,” a lighthearted tune that envelopes the listener in warm layers of vocal harmony, jangly mallet percussion and banjo arpeggiations. The song’s cheerfulness is a far cry from the haunted torment of “Pretty People” and “Monkey” – the opening tracks from Low’s two previous studio efforts. Where those compositions went for a Debby Downer approach that emphasized words like “death” and “kill,” “Try to Sleep” eschews those themes of cessation for ones of renewal. When you also considers the implications of past album titles (2007’s Drums and Guns and 2005’s The Great Destroyer), it’s fairly obvious that the band is making a concerted effort to pull its listeners out of the doldrums. C’mon spends a majority of its first half validating that mission: “You See Everything” is a breezy pop tune that accentuates Parker’s pacifying voice and sprightly acoustic guitar strums, while “Done” pairs Wilco guitarist Nels Cline’s lap-steel sighs with lyrics about the need to soldier onward (“I’m weary and stumbling / in the desert heat / where raindrops / they burn up / before they reach / your cheek”). Sparhawk sounds vaguely Michael Stipe-ish on the smoldering heat of “Witches,” where stream-of-consciousness vocals and guitar fuzz recount the need to stand up to “guys out there trying to act like Al Green.” Given the context, we can only assume that Sparhawk is referencing the former professional wrestler and not the soul singer of the same name.
While Low can do summery pop music as well as anyone else, it’s no secret that devastating melancholia is their stock in trade, and they utilize it to maximum effect on C’mon’s second side. “$20” starts out with only tentatively strokes on the guitar and Sparhawk’s hushed tenor. The song’s mantra is intoned soon thereafter however, as the instrumentation grows more agitated and Sparhawk and Parker sing in immaculate yet cautionary harmony, “My love is for free.” “Nightingale” is an achingly gorgeous assemblage of quivering blues guitar, ethereal keyboards, and minimalist drums.
Yet for all C’mon’s many gems, nothing holds a candle to “Majesty/Magic” and “Nothing But Heart,” which capture Low’s astounding ability to take a repetitive sequence of chords and transform it into something truly sublime. Both tracks share a stylistic DNA in which one idea is steadily bolstered by way of mounting decibel levels and expanding textures, but their application results in shockingly disparate moods. “Majesty/Magic” imperceptibly piles on layers of guitar clamor and thundering drums until the song literally sounds as if it’s going to collapse under the agony of its own weight. It’s really a thing of apocalyptic beauty, with the singers’ voices wailing in defiance as everything around them is obliterated. Yet true to the album’s original intent, the 8-minute “Nothing But Heart” picks everyone back up by the bootstraps and valiantly presses onward. The tune is as its title states, where a down-but-not-out mentality carries the listener back into the light; if “Majesty/Magic was the sound of the night’s beckoning, “Nothing But Heart” looks joyfully to the coming sunrise.
Low made us wait four years for the follow-up to their war-weary Drums and Guns, but an album as ace as C’mon would’ve been worth a few years more. As the result of their impassioned musicianship and disciplined songwriting, this band has always had go-to credibility; with C’mon, they’ve raised the bar higher still.