Low is a hard-working band. Admittedly, that’s a pretty empty phrase—it brings to mind scruffy guys hauling amp’s around, writing songs in moving cars and wearing bandanas—but in this case it’s a fitting description. With the relationship between Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker as its unshakable bedrock, Low has endured for two decades not by chasing trends or reinventing itself, but by following its own fragile muse and simply doing the work. Though Low has never been prolific enough to be cast in the genius mold—leave that to the Robert Pollards and the Ty Segalls of the world—the band has worked at a steady clip ever since its 1994 debut, delivering an album of stark, mysterious confessions at a one-every-two-years average. They don’t expect you to be too impressed by this; that’s just what bands do.
The Invisible Way, the group’s tenth album, was recorded at Wilco’s loft recording studio in Chicago, and it finds the trio teaming up with Wilco frontman and occasional producer Jeff Tweedy. This is a precedented move: Low has worked with big-name producers in the past, teaming up with Steve Albini (Secret Name and Things We Lost In The Fire) and Dave Fridmann (The Great Destroyer and Drums And Guns). The band has such a clearly defined aesthetic that those producers all managed to leave an imprint on the band’s records without changing the overall trajectory in any profound way. Low has always had a knack for absorbing outside influences, whether it’s the meddling of producers, the creative pull of a side project or the necessary release of a solo album. The Albini records had a gnarled, brooding sound while the Fridmann albums were filled with subtle experiments that gently pushed the band in new exciting directions. 2011′s C’mon couldn’t help but feel like a quiet culmination, a careful mash-up of styles and approaches tried out in more rigorous settings elsewhere. It felt as close to a victory lap as we’ll ever get from a band that’s never really been into celebrations or flag-waving.
So where do you go from there? Back to work, apparently. From the opening strum of an acoustic guitar on “Plastic Cup,” this record has a tactile simplicity to it, an unfussy and plainspoken directness that turns Tweedy into a felt absence throughout the record—you know he’s there even when you can’t hear him. Tweedy’s production techniques reveal the bones that hold these songs together—guitar, piano and drums—and he rarely pushes the band much further beyond that core trio of sounds. The most notable aspect of the record is the increased use of piano on rousing, almost anthemic songs like “So Blue” and “Just Make It Stop,” which both build to emotionally draining climaxes as Parker’s vocals rise with the pounding piano keys. Parker takes the lead vocal duties on more songs than usual, her low-key delivery giving an earthbound quality to celestial tunes like “Holy Ghost.” She sounds like a forlorn folk-singer—not too different than Tweedy himself—as she delivers lines like, “I feel the hands but I don’t see anyone/It’s there and gone.”
It’s definitely possible that I’m overstating Tweedy’s influence on the record. There are still plenty of Low hallmarks here, particularly in the lyrics that continue to show an interest in the complexity of family (“Mother”), the difficulty of redemption (“To Our Knees”) and the threat of violence (“Waiting”). Sparhawk still has a keen ability to turn slightly off-kilter phrases and hyper-specific references into haunting, almost hymnal-like songs; the way he casually uses the name of Byrds guitarist Clarence White on “Clarence White” brings to mind C’Mon‘s allusion to Al Green. What distinguishes the lyrical outlook of The Invisible Way from previous Low records is a growing spirituality and a sense that, yeah, things might just work out for the better despite the world’s seemingly endless indifference to human suffering. “Hope runs wild/The truth can hide/Sometimes right behind the sorrow,” sings Sparhawk at one point, and it really sounds like he believes it.
In many ways Low’s longevity is a sign of hope. The band’s steadfastness, its dogged consistency has become its defining characteristic, and while that quality can be used against it—the classic “all-their-albums-sound-the-same” argument—it can also be seen as something to be admired and emulated. While it’s always exciting when a band like My Bloody Valentine reemerges with a new record after years of chiseling away at a new masterpiece, there’s something to be said for persevering, for building a legacy one brick at a time. The Invisible Way may not be the most significant brick, but its sturdiness is something to be admired.