Low’s futuristic, euphoric ‘HEY WHAT’ is here (stream, review)
Low have always known how to say a lot with a little. Their seminal 1994 debut album I Could Live In Hope was marked by one-word song titles, minimal lyrics, and bare-bones instrumentation that only included bass, drums, and clean electric guitar without an ounce of studio polish. The album helped pioneer the genre slowcore, which got its name from taking the confrontational simplicity of hardcore and doing something slow and quiet with it. It's music that begs to be called "boring," but that never described Low. Even with very little going on, Low's music was devastatingly captivating from the very beginning.
More than a quarter-century and a dozen albums later, Low can't be called slowcore anymore. They began a full pivot away from the genre that they helped invent with 2015's Ones and Sixes, their first collaboration with producer BJ Burton (also a frequent Bon Iver collaborator), who's helped shake up their sound with glitchy programmed noise. HEY WHAT is their third consecutive album with BJ, and at this point, he's become a crucial unofficial member of the band who's helped give Low's career new life -- the Brian Eno to their David Bowie circa the Berlin Trilogy. Like Bowie at almost any given point in his career, Low's current music isn't indebted to their classic material. The classics still sound timeless, but they don't define Low or loom large over what they're doing now. The music Low are making in 2021 is just as relevant and unique as the music they were making in 1994, in an entirely different way.
The more Low and BJ Burton work together, the better they seem to understand each other. Their previous collaboration, 2018's Double Negative, was not just a peak in Low's career but one of the absolute best albums of the decade, as moment-defining in the 2010s as anything Low put out in the '90s. HEY WHAT might be even better. Like Double Negative, HEY WHAT is fueled by Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's gorgeously distinct harmonies, and then fucked with in the studio with BJ Burton until those harmonies are floating in a sea of electronically manipulated noise. As great as Double Negative is, it could meander, something HEY WHAT never does. The loud, bold melodies on HEY WHAT reach out, grab you, and demand your attention, and then they shower you with a rush of euphoria. They sound less like rock songs and more like hymns, written to be succinct and memorable so an entire congregation can join in without much practice. And then BJ Burton comes in to screw with them, fusing Alan and Mimi's voices with chaotic white noise that will make you think you blew a speaker.
As always, Low are saying a lot with a little. "When you think you've seen everything, you'll find we're living in days like these," Alan and Mimi chant on lead single "Days Like These." It's vague enough to mean anything, but just specific enough to capture what so many of us have been feeling the past 18 months. Low are not only still musically innovative 25+ years into their career, they're also still able to provide a reflection of the times we're currently living in. And they do it in a way that's still open-ended enough to sound meaningful in the future, just as their '90s albums do today. Just about every song on the album is open to various interpretations. On the stunning opener "White Horses," Low warn you that "the consequences of leaving would be more cruel than if I should stay" and suggest that "there isn't much past believing," and the moral of the story is "Still, white horses take us home." White horses have had countless meanings throughout various cultures, and it's impossible to know which meaning Low attached to them here -- if any -- but it doesn't really matter. It's less about the exact meaning, and more about the way the song provides a sense of hope.
The way Low use the studio as an instrument to craft electronically-driven pop music sounds futuristic, but their approach to melody and harmony feels ancient, channelling folk music and choral music that predated the modern pop era. The contrast makes for an album that sounds entirely of the moment, but also not like anything else coming out right now. Low understand that innovation is exciting, but having something familiar to latch onto is rewarding too. It's an album that appeals to your mind, body, and heart all at once, and that's why it feels like such a rush to listen to. It overwhelms the senses.