In 1994, Low oozed onto the scene with I Could Live In Hope, an album that barely spoke above a whisper. It was solemn and cold, the embodiment of the slowcore movement of the time. Throughout their career, Low have been the definitive slowcore band, adhering to the aesthetic set out by Bedhead, Red House Painters and Codeine. Nearly twenty years on, we have arrived at record number ten, The Invisible Way.
Low have developed in a manner as one would have expected. The production tidies up, the artists grow in confidence and age – Low are nothing if not consistent. When one buys a Low record, one gets largely what one would expect: soporific repetition, minimal instrumentation and sadness in abundance. The last record, C’Mon, saw more ambitious instrumentation, but the sadness and repetition remained.
This couldn’t pass as a serious review without mentioning that this album features Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on production. Upon hearing this, it struck me as an odd decision. Wilco are a band who have made a name for themselves by making cheery alternative country music loudly; Low are a band who made a name for themselves by playing sad music more quietly than any other. When I heard the record for the first time, his influence was obvious. The guitars and vocals lack the reverb of previous records, they are very clear and staccato with little to no resonance. These decisions jar with what one would expect from Low, but this in and of itself is not a big issue; artist variety and experimentation should be encouraged. This is not, however, my only issue.
The lyrics of the songs are very much in keeping with what one would expect from Low; songs about depression (‘So Blue’, ‘Just Make It Stop) and insignificance (‘Plastic Cup’) are present. The music appears to be caught between the bright production and the dark lyrics, though it tends to fall more on the ‘happy’ side than the ‘sad’ side of a rather crude dichotomy. Often tracks carry a dynamic, uplifting rhythm and seem to be at odds with the dour words. This juxtaposition has been used to great effect by artists like Elliott Smith, but for Low it detracts from the impact that the tracks may have had. As I have said before, one usually knows what one is getting with a Low album, but this really seems really out of step. As clumsy as genre-application is, this feels more like an alternative country record than a slowcore record.
This leads onto my final problem with the record. The songwriting really doesn’t seem as strong as it has been on previous records. ‘So Blue’ has a whiny, irritating chorus, ‘Holy Ghost’ is a rather poor attempt at tear-in-your-beer country music and ‘Plastic Cup’ ambles around with no real direction and then stops abruptly. The only song I can say that I like is ‘On My Own’, which is a much more interestingly arranged track and brings in some loud guitars to remind us what this album could have been.
This record isn’t really awful by any stretch of the imagination, but it showcases some poor production and songwriting choices. It fails to get out of first gear for the most part, unsure of what it’s doing and leaves the listener underwhelmed.
…Fran has been listening to Bedhead – What Fun Life Was…