Double Negative is a conceptual work rooted in stark Americana but obscured by bouts of digital confusion. Reference points surface—the dark, brooding, quiet music of the Tindersticks and the barren folk of Sun Kil Moon—but increasingly, Low crafts universes that feel otherworldly and unfamiliar. Increasingly schooled in that art of deconstructive production, like Jim O’Rourke, Low is now more likely to be heard in the music of other artists. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ recent fare goes down a similarly mysterious and oppressive path. The anguished grandeur of some of Thom Yorke’s soundtrack work also strikes a related tone.
Double Negative seems an album in search of a film. The landscapes are not dissimilar from those of a Jonny Greenwood soundtrack—in particular, There Will Be Blood. Low focuses more on technology and how it can disrupt a song, but the two share a mournful, epic-like nature. What’s more, the ominously pounding rhythms and lyrical greed of “Rome (Always in the Dark)”—with the line “I got magic water / You can have it all”—feel of a piece with There Will Be Blood’s hellbent quest for wealth.
This year, Low turns 25. Even those who have been with the band from the beginning would be right to be slightly surprised. After all, the trio from Duluth, Minnesota, claims rather humble beginnings, and the act’s debut album, I Could Live in Hope, feels so fragile, it could seemingly disappear. How could a band making such weightless music sustain such an approach for more than two decades?It turns out that Low in 2018 isn’t so weightless.
Double Negative presents the ensemble at its most experimental. The album doubles as an enigma for listeners who attempt to explore it. A majority of the first four or five songs remain buried in hiss and static—the beauty of the melodies emerging only briefly before disappearing into a drone. But stick with it, and songs begin to appear, especially during the record’s latter half.
Here, the husband and wife couple of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker,joined again by longstanding bassist Steve Garrington, partner for the second time with producer B.J. Burton. The same core group recorded 2015’s Ones and Sixes, a set that shows how menacing relatively quiet sounds can become. With Double Negative, Low burrows deeper into the shadows. It often finds nightmares amidst a confrontational album that some may find off-putting. Others, however, will probably marvel at the battle Low wages against noise—a fight in which organic sounds, including human voices, struggle to find their way to the surface.
While one may have to strain to hear the lyrics of the opening “Quorum,” the references to war, “selfish interest,” and the general destruction of order indicate Low actively referencing the divisive political climate of America in 2018. Such a move wouldn’t be unprecedented. The trio’s 2007 effort Drums and Guns took inspiration from the war with Iraq. But more than a political statement, Double Negative appears to be about misperceptions and misunderstandings. There’s nothing topical, for instance, about the chance encounter with an old flame at a grocery store in “Always Tring to Work It Out” on which guitar notes bend, twist, and knot around Sparhawk’s shifting vocals.
Bleaker still is “Dancing and Fire,” the moment where Double Negative widens to show two people lost in a world they can no longer control. “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope,” Sparhawk sings, his voice obscured and barely above a whisper. The guitar sounds brushed rather than played, and dooming winds blow the song into oblivion. The closing “Disarray” annihilates all that precedes it, with digital washboard effects giving way to clear harmonies. Here, Sparhawk and Parker sing a double negative that stands out like a warning: “The truth is not something that you have not heard.” Like everything on the album, it presents itself as a puzzle that deserves to be unwrapped.
Judging the sound and vinyl pressing quality for this album is futile, given the program material. The ratings here are a best guess. Consider this fair warning to all who drop the needle: no, your turntable isn’t broken, it’s supposed to sound that way.
Interestingly, our review vinyl is the “Loser Edition” clear vinyl. While some might look at clear as “colored vinyl” it’s the opposite- no color at all. Even black vinyl has color additives, whereas this is most likely the complete absence of color additives at all. Unless there was something added to make the LP more “clear.” The packaging is light, but has a paper inner sleeve and insert that are nice, and the center label design is cute even if “360 Stereo Sound” is 180-degrees opposite of the way it would be described by most.
Last chance to change your mind...