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Minnesota Music Reviews: Low

Hey What album cover
Hey What album cover

The world is a loud and confusing place filled with high-tech difficulties that can drain the soul but if you slow down - maybe strap on some headphones - and listen hard enough it’s also a place filled with beauty, harmony and a beating heart.

Hey What, the 13th full-length release from Duluth band Low, sees partners Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker continue to lift their heavy, distorted electric guitars and entangled vocal arrangements into places beyond the human realm. Working with edgy Bon Iver producer BJ Burton for a third time, it is a modern, experimental record that pops with surprises but always comes back to complex and heartfelt songwriting.

Dress it up any way you want, if the songs don’t reach inside the listener and explore the complicated human condition, the artist won’t be around for long. Sparhawk and Parker have been recording for more than 25 years. The craftsmanship is undeniable. The search for something new is constant.

On their last record, 2018’s Double Negative, the band pushed music to its extremes. Harsh and haunting, Low and Burton deprogrammed guitars, invented new rhythm and reshaped vocals to the point of corruption. It was a brave step but a hard listen.

The 10-tracks on Hey What share the same sonic adventure but instead of launching into new, uncharted galaxies, Low shoots for a new moon over Saturn.

The opening track “White Horses” offers up a sludgy, sputtering introduction, like trying to start a car on subzero morning. Sound skips like a dirty disk in a cheap CD player but Sparkhawk and Parker vocals are upfront and clean.

“The consequences of leaving would be more cruel if I should stay,” they sing. “Though it’s impossible to say, I know. Still white horses bring us home.”

Dark times for sure - this is what Low does best - but there is hope in these words and voices. In other songs, difficult trades are made, adversaries are fought all night and Parker’s voice shines with “la, la, las” that twist into slow-motion siren calls. Conflict is a great source for songwriting.

Another place Low returns often for inspiration is Lake Superior, a constantly changing, unpredictable force of nature that sits out its back window in Minnesota. A wonderful example of this is “Disappearing.”

Guitars roll over the song like waves from a November wind. Sparkhawk and Parker vocals come together in a hypnotic sea chanty: “That disappearing horizon, it brings cold comfort to my soul. An ever-present reminder, the constant face of the unknown, unknown.”

Two highlights, almost radio-friendly tracks, are “Days Like These,” and “More.” Both songs float over murky waters, feature roaring hooks and create new beats and marches with little drum work. They feel alive - not a studio creation - but also not of this world. Layers unfold in multiple listenings.

“I learned more than they ever taught. They thought I could never pull it off. I saw more than what I ever sought. I should have asked for more than what I got,” sings Parker in “More.” The songwriting digs so deep it feels longer than its 2:10 time stamp.

An English teacher might tell you Hey What is both a declaration and a question. Like the album title, the music consistently melds two different expressions into one unified piece. The music is both light and heavy. The words are both hopeful and harrowing. Electric guitars collide with synthesizers. Sound production both overwhelms and falls silent. Most of all, Sparhawk and Parker vocals soar above different continents then land together in the same place: this amazing and troubled world.

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