Having perfected their style with 1999's Secret Name and 2001's Things We Lost In The Fire, it was only natural that the band would try new things in the ensuing decade. Their new album, C'mon, is their most extreme change yet in the sense that it mostly overturns their established aesthetic, savoring the fun of making and listening to inviting, melodic, and sunny tunes. But how did they get there from the well-worn cliché of them as a navel gazing minimalist band who all but defined the slowcore subgenre?
Well, I haven't kept up with Low since 2001, so C'mon came as something of a shock. Even so, examining the three albums I had missed out on has been something I've meant to get around to since starting this blog. In a three part series of essays, I'll be digging into each record one at a time; don't consider any of these reviews in the traditional sense. Rather, I want to take the long view, so to speak, and examine them in the context of the band's history as well as the present.
Low is a consistent band when it comes to putting out records. In fact, it's usually the three year fallows between releases where the major changes take place. The gap between The Curtain Hits The Cast and Secret Name saw the band moving from a pseudo-major label to indie stalwart Kranky, as well as working with sympathetic producer Steve Albini, a man well known for stripped down sounds and raw/live sounding records. He and the more appropriate home at Kranky allowed them to perfect their sound without having a major label breathing down their necks.
As Trust, however, only trailed Things We Lost In The Fire by a year, the most major change is in using producer Tchad Blake, who has an annoying-to-spell first name. Furthermore, he's worked with such a wide variety of artists it's impossible to pin a certain style on him. Unlike Albini or the forthcoming work with Dave Fridmann, then, most of the credit or blame for Trust lays with Low.
This is a classic transitional album with all the problems these kind of records usually have. It's their longest and most expansive work to date, keeping one foot in the older sound while sometimes noticeably nudging themselves to take new steps forward. 'Canada' is the clearest example of what I'm getting at, practically leaping out of the speakers with a fuzzed out bass and the most overt rock song they'd done up to this point. But changes are also demonstrated by the subtle banjo and (what sounds like a) buried horn section on 'In The Drugs'; the incredibly pretty piano solo showcase for Mimi Parker on 'Point Of Disgust'; and the suspended animation drones of 'Shots & Ladders.' This song serves as a kind of blueprint for Drums and Guns, but we'll get to that later.
With four songs over seven minutes long each, Low are no longer celebrating a different approach to making music, with minimalism and spaciousness as the key guiding principles, as they did at their best on past records. Now they're just taking too long to get anywhere. 'John Prine' is the worst offender here. It's not even that it's a bad song; its crime is being way too long and possessing an unsympathetic structure, drowning what could have been a quaint two minute song in the murky depths of their old approach where they would painstakingly build tension or atmosphere over the course of four or five minutes. During the entire course of the album there is also the issue of Mimi Parker's drumming, which is similarly unsympathetic to the arrangements. Playing while standing up with a crash cymbal and snare is brilliant for past masterpieces like 'Two-Step' and 'Closer' but for a beefier song like 'Canada' it comes off as thin and weak, as if she was laying down the click track and they never went back to overdub the real drum parts.
Trust is weighed down by its ties to the band's past. The album title and cover art, to say nothing of the themes of the lyrics, suggest a record about strained personal relationships, though as fans we could also interpret it as the album's defense statement. The band had to know they were trying to get somewhere but hadn't fully made the change, falling back on old tricks to pad out the runtime, as if to say, “not all this new stuff is great, but there's still plenty of the old stuff to help ease you in!”
To these ears, though, it doesn't work. The band must have realized this, too. It's very telling that the music they would go on to make over the next nine years sounds very little like Trust or their past at all.