A while back I promised a post on Low—the third in my series of “life-changing albums” (part one, part two). I fumbled on the post because, among other excuses, I couldn’t figure out which Low album to talk about. Everything from I Could Live in Hope to Secret Name—four albums, two EPs, innumerable 7”s and compilation appearances—might be worth calling life-changing.”
Then the topic of Low’s best album came up elseweb. I picked The Curtain Hits the Cast and immediately regretted my choice, realizing in a moment of epiphany that my favorite Low album, all along, has been their EP Songs for a Dead Pilot. That was the album that proved Low had more gas in the tank than expected, and that they truly had made an aesthetic leap. No other band, and no other album, better illustrated the idea of setting up parameters as a special kind of freedom.
I discovered Low by chance. I picked up their first album solely because I liked its cover. This was some time in 1994 or 1995, when I was getting out of my metal years and looking for something else. Coming from metal, it doesn’t get much more “something else” than the eleven lullabies that are I Could Live in Hope. It was a beautiful record—probably the first album I’ve ever owned that could be described as such. I listened to it unendingly and really felt a kind of ache in songs like “Words” or “Lazy.”
In a way my embrace of Low could be seen as a direct reaction to my love of Drive Like Jehu. As I said about that band, who I also consider life-changing, they killed rock music for me. They executed my idea of rock music so perfectly that I simply had no need for other bands treading in loud/fast territory. Where else to go but Low? Over the next three years the band perfected their approach to their sound, with the colder, darker Long Division and their masterpiece, The Curtain Hits the Cast, in which the band’s lyrics gained added dimension and their musical continuum seemed to reach its plateau in the somnambulant epic “Do You Know How to Waltz?”.
As good as Low was—and despite their steady perfection of their sound—it was becoming difficult to imagine remaining a fan beyond that album. Reviews, even the good ones, were routinely dismissive—“Low is really slow!”—as if nothing more needed to be said. Lines like that got my dander up but at the same time, how many more Curtains did the band really have left before the whole thing became redundant?
And so we come to Songs for a Dead Pilot, a statement of intent if ever I’ve heard one. By ditching their producer (Kramer), the band eliminated the pristine sheen that was draped across each of their other albums. Staying true to their explicitly stated parameters—play slow—Songs for a Dead Pilot nevertheless broke the band into new emotional territory: tension, anger, disappointment, resentment. These feelings lurked under their previous songs (such as “Mom Said” from Curtain), but they were hidden beneath that sheen of perfection. Perfect harmonies, delicate musicianship. Maybe it's a subtle shift, but Songs moved from delicate to fragile.
Beginning with Songs, the band chose to expose their flaws. Mimi stopped double-tracking her vocals, making her voice sound more human, less angelic. Alan stretched his vocals further (“Landlord”), practically flaunting the fact that he is hardly as good a vocalist as his wife. You can also hear the band paying closer attention to every small sound their instruments make. Listen to "Born by the Wires," and how Alan plays that one chord over and over for nearly ten minutes. Every strum of that muddy chord is just a little different, calling attention to each individual note and the way his pick hits the strings. No song better illustrates the band's progression. They made a conscious decision to become more raw and more explicitly minimalist, as opposed to merely minimal, as their prior albums could be described.
Perhaps this was always the band’s intent. But it was Songs that allowed me my personal epiphany. Low’s approach to music is like Zeno’s paradox: no matter how small the space, there is always further to go. They’re not interested, like Slint for instance, in expressing themselves through dramatic dynamics. This becomes a kind of limitation that sets Low free. In a sense they're like a musical embodiment of Albert Camus' Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was damned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back to the bottom each time he reached the top, for eternity. Where one might view that as a kind of hell, Camus made it a metaphor for the aburdity of life; accepting his fate, Sisyphus eventually would have no expectation that his boulder would do anything other than fall down that hill. Locked into his routine, he certainly must have come to know any variety of emotions beyond despair. As Camus wrote, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." Songs for a Dead Pilot, while certainly not a happy record, nevertheless finds Low embracing a similar philosophy. Knowing that their sound is limited to certain rules, they must now find aesthetic fulfillment within those parameters. Songs for a Dead Pilot took a slight left turn from the trajectory Low had been on; just enough to show that they could go anywhere they pleased.