2007's Drums and Guns was certainly the most tortured album in Low's seventeen-year discography. After watching the documentary made around that time, You May Need a Murderer, I'd frankly be worried for the band if five years later Low were still pushing to the outer waters. Drums and Guns was more than mere artistic statement—it was a difficult snapshot of a man who was trying to hang on. The documentary portrays Alan Sparhawk as someone who is deeply troubled by personal demons as well as the ills of the world. War, economic downturn, and psychologic ills aside, Sparhawk was literally ready for the rapture to begin. He was on the other side of a nervous breakdown and was clearly still wrestling with himself—all while his wife and two children joined him in the van on the road to the next stop on tour. It's a dark and difficult documentary to watch, especially for fans who have spent nearly twenty years holding on both to the music and to the idea(l) that Low are more than a band, they're a family. No one wants Low to suffer.
Listening to C'mon, the newest album, I'd rather not say it's a retreat from where Low were going on their last album, sonically speaking, but rather a return to a healthier form. (I hope, at least; I've nothing to go on but the sound of the music).
Retreat, return… on the other hand I hate to use either word. It's either to Low's eternal credit or eternal detriment that, to some ears, they'll always more or less sound the same, while to others each album represents a dramatic progression or regression in their sound. Though it's true that Drums and Guns is their angriest record, and before that The Great Destroyer was their loudest, those are still relative terms. For all their differences, neither are immeasurable steps away from the simmering restraint of Trust, the experimentation of Songs for a Dead Pilot, or the dynamism of Secret Name (which includes some of Low's sunniest and darkest material). Few bands, now or ever, have been as consistently brilliant as Low for as long a period of time. So let's not get caught up in talking about similarities and differences, but rather measure the overall quality: C'mon is a gorgeous and near-perfect album, easily their best since Things We Lost in the Fire, released a decade ago.
C'mon is bookended by "Try to Sleep" and "Something's Turning Over," both terrific additions to the pantheon of Low's poppier, peppier material (think "Starfire," "Venus," "Dinosaur Act," etc.). Together they contain the mood of the record, keeping C'mon hopeful even amid darker tracks like "$20," which hearkens back to the band's Vernon Yard era, where songs possessed the minimum of words and song structure. It and the slow-building "Magic/Majesty" are like true old-school slowcore songs, throwbacks to a time when that subgenre had more traction.
Not to say they've abandoned the sound of some of their more recent material. Sparhawk's distortion pedal still makes its share of appearances, as on the cheekily sinister "Witches." Lyrically the song seems to point to some of the themes of You May Need a Murderer—delusions, rapture—but made light. When the narrator of the song tells his father that there are witches in his room, his father gives him a baseball bat to beat the hags into submission. The whole song is about being quote-unquote tough, but it's those quotation marks that reveal its weakness.
That's where Mimi Parker comes in: she is the strength of this album, and I mean that in every positive sense of the word. (Fitting, perhaps, that it's her silhouette on the album's cover.) As on every Low album Parker's presence is the anchor to each song, though she only sings lead here and there. In some ways that's where the sometimes great but inconsistent Drums and Guns faltered. Aside from one song at its midpoint, that album feels very much dominated by Sparhawk and his demons. C'mon, by contrast, is more tempered. Parker makes her presence known by the second track, "You See Everything," and again a few tracks later on "Especially Me"—perhaps the best Parker-sung track in ten years. There is a motherly quality to her voice; she is reassuring no matter the content of the lyrics or the ominous quality of the music. Her voice is the foundation of the band's sound—the rock. When Low get dark, her voice is a light. Though it was not absent from Drums and Guns, it felt suppressed. Here, even when she isn't singing lead, she retains a softness that counters Sparhawk's fragility.
- Low: Especially Me
This is perhaps best exemplified on the album's climax, the eight-minute powerhouse that is "Nothing But Heart." The song starts slow as Sparhawk sings a short verse followed by the line "I'm nothing but heart" repeated over and over. Those last four words could have come straight from Sparhawk's mouth in that documentary: the guy, at what looked to be just above his lowest point, was nothing if not raw and confessional and putting it all out there in his songs. "I'm nothing but heart"—full of emotion and easy to break. Sparhawk latches onto that line like a terrier and never lets go of it as the song builds and builds and builds—it's a lighters-in-the-air anthem like they've never done before. But it's not the dynamic build to crescendo or the electrifying guitar solo that knocks this song up to the next level—it's Parker's soothing voice, which comes in around the six minute mark singing her own set of lyrics in counter to Sparhawk's. Her words are slightly unintelligible amid the din—light in a fog, perhaps—but snatches here and there seem to respond to Sparhawk. Though I can't make it all out, one line sticks out at me: "as we stumble to the shore, as we walk into the night." It's that we that gets me. It seems almost to be a corrective to the masterful "Done," from earlier in the album. In that song Sparhawk sings "I'm weary and stumbling in the desert heat"; later he sings "If you see my love, tell her I'm done." When Parker comes in at the record's climactic moment, singing of stumbling together, not alone, you get the feeling that she's not done. It's as if she is the one holding out her hand, saying c'mon.