If Low’s last album, 2015’s acclaimed Ones and Sixes, saw them slip off their slowcore shackles, Double Negative feels like a near-detonation of all that’s gone before.
As the band moved into their third decade, a sense of consolidation surrounded the 2013 Jeff Tweedy-produced The Invisible Way, which was accomplished and safe. Ones and Sixes introduced abrasive beats and echoes but still roughly stuck to a verse-chorus structure. Compared to Tweedy’s Wilco, it was Low’s Summerteeth – enthralling, edgy yet still familiar. Double Negative, however, is Low’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – jarring, discombobulating and breathtaking.
Working again with Bon Iver collaborator BJ Burton, frontman Alan Sparhawk’s fascination with hip hop is evident on the opening salvos. ‘Quorum’ rumbles into the speakers like a slow-motion nuclear explosion, Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s heavily-treated voices fading in and out of the deep hum and crackle before pin-drop clarity briefly interjects. It’s one of several moments of “what the….?!” disorientation in the album’s first half which works to wipe Low’s slate clean. There are eardrum rhythms and two-minute throat-chants (‘Dancing and Blood’), low-end thrums, underwater percussion (‘Fly’) and floating soundtrack keyboards in a Carpenter or Vangelis vein.
It’s not until ‘Fly’ that Parker’s haunting singing is untethered, exclaiming “take my weary bones and fly” as bass shudders again win over. Then it’s back into the cave as distortion almost totally submerges her husband’s vocals on ‘Tempest’.
As the album unwinds, there is a sense of gradually entering a clearing. Still largely guitarless, ‘Always Up’ is more recognisably Low – the couple’s keening words moving front and centre before they are sucked again into a forest of synthetic echo.
It’s all heading towards the middle and strongest song ‘Always Trying to Work it Out’. A tale of stabs at connection with a grocery store backdrop, the soaring chorus is classic Low but with pitch-shifted voices, glitches and thuds which Bon Iver fans will lap up.
Of course, a double negative makes a positive and shots of darkness and weight are counterpointed by flickers of warmth and brightness. The tumult in their home country means the Minnesotans are as serious as ever and hope is hard to come by. Yet, there are hints of breakthrough, such as at the end of ‘Poor Sucker’: “Fling your body to the walls/It’s the light, it’s the truth/Only one thing you can do.”
So this is a new Low – burning the house down and re-building something of brutal beauty.