For the better part of 25 years, Low have been a celebration of post rock esoterica. From the indie kids to the now middle-aged 90s alternative crowd, the band are a conversation ender in that people rarely express distaste for them. There’s good reason for this. Not all of the music is good, but the highs are fantastically high. When the band begin their slow-burn 'Pissing' from 2005’s The Great Destroyer, even the most noncommittal of concertgoers keep their traps shut.
Based in the ungodly weather of Duluth, MN, Low have always captured the winds of Lake Superior winters. At the groups onset, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker used typical rock instrumentation to make something decidedly not rock and roll, but a lot has changed over the course of twelve albums. Low is still not a fun band, but they have remained engaging. 'Quorum,' the song that opens Double Negative, no longer needs guitars to achieve the wonders associated with the feeble genre terms used to describe them. The track is lightning (or in Low’s case, snow) in a bottle. Each burst of sound becomes clearer, further removing any preconceived notions of the band with each sonic thrum.
Like a handful of other Minnesota music stalwarts, Low are hitting a late-career stride. 2015’s Ones and Sixes and the almost endless supply of side-projects have kept them on their creative toes. Between 'Quorum' and 'Dancing and Fire,' we see both sides of Sparhawk’s prowess. The latter is perhaps his finest guitar tone yet. Much like the vocal tone, each strum is suspended perfectly before disintegrating into the mix. It’s the kind of sound your nerdy college friend spent dozens of hours trying to master, with Sparhawk’s dual-amp delay fading into an apocalyptic haze. “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope,” he laments at the album’s turning point.
Low sometimes struggle with getting their slow songs to cooperate with the poppier material. This is still the case on Double Negative. Closing off with 'Disarray,' a wonderfully written song that falters in execution alone, is a head scratcher despite its catchiness. Still, it manages to promote the album’s replay value. As is usually the case at the end of a Low record, you won’t know what you’ve just been through. 'Quorum' is a welcome follow-up to 'Disarray' although they live on opposite poles.
Other pop moments are fantastically realized. 'Rome (Always In The Dark)' is one of the bands best loud songs. Sparhawk’s vocal is enormous atop the treated beats and squealing guitar, but it’s Parker’s harmonies underneath that give the song its extra character. “Let’s turn this thing out before they take us out,” screams the pair. Sitting as the album’s penultimate track, it’s pleasant to hear uplifting sentiments amidst the rest of the records emotional lows.
Sparhawk’s muted mumbling is mirrored by Parker’s clarity. The lyrics on 'Fly' are impossible to miss, and its nearly silent coda is as much of an ear magnet as the album’s most emphatic moments. The vocal experimentation goes off the rails on 'Tempest.' Once again singing in unison, the beatless production is a degradation of fidelity throughout five minutes. It’s a trick that Justin Vernon’s April Base studio mastered on 22, A Million. Double Negative is the second Low record recorded here, and acts as the quieter, artsier younger sibling to Bon Iver’s more accessible work. At the end of 'Tempest,' the vocal is completely unintelligible, a move that works wonders. See, Low’s drama has long laid in the band’s ability to make simple riffs sound ethereal and endless. The fact that you can’t discern the lyrics plays into this, not against it. The words may in fact be too painful to be made clear, and the track doesn’t suffer despite this difficult approach.
With Double Negative, Low maintain all fronts of their fanbase. All the elements of the bands chilling atmospheres are there. If you ever encounter a person that’s not a fan, don’t begrudge them their lack of patience within Low’s creeping genre-breaking. Instead, simply acknowledge their impressive and intense catalogue, and their ability to maintain creative freedom across a dozen records, a marriage, and a handful of lineup changes. Do things the Minnesota way, and be nice about it. The music is too dramatic for anything other than kindness.