Despite the fact that Low have made various modifications to the hushed, intimate, acoustic sound that first brought them renown in the 90s, the Minnesota trio are still regarded in some quarters as a sleepily unchanging beast: the 'slowcore' Ramones.
Granted, nobody approaches a new Low release expecting a radical change of direction, but albums such as 2005's The Great Destroyer have shown a willingness to experiment with their understated template.
Their 10th album, The Invisible Way is, while recognisably the work of Low, noticeably different in that drummer/singer Mimi Parker assumes more lead vocals than ever before.
Long thought of as indie-rock's very own Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, Parker and singer/guitarist Alan Sparhawk famously harmonise like grievous angels.
And while fans of their duets won't go unrewarded on The Invisible Way, the decision to place Parker's gorgeous, soulful voice out front reaps startling emotional dividends.
Lyrically preoccupied with depression, illness and transcendence, this touching album is bathed in a kind of exquisite misery.
Held aloft by rising cascades of piano, like an escalator riding to the heavens, the jubilant So Blue finds comfort and joy in mutual despair. By contrast, Paper Cup is a starkly hypnotic lament for the impermanence of life.
Elsewhere, Amethyst is an affecting funeral dirge, and Waiting sounds like the ghost of an old country song. The album's sole point of explicit rage, On My Own, climaxes with an explosion of rust-encrusted chords.
But although the heartbreaking Just Make It Stop finds Parker at the end of her rope, it's ultimately life-affirming. “If I could just make it stop, I could tell the whole world to get out of the way,” she sings, as she bustles unnoticed through a crowded street. A nakedly beautiful song, it's the beating heart of an album that often stuns with its unaffected honesty.
Produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, The Invisible Way is warm and organic, melodic and fragile. Twenty years into their career, and Low have created one of their best albums yet. They needn't ever change.
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Alan Sparhawk (Low):
"We have worked with many of the great engineer/producers. Jeff Tweedy has been on our side of the microphone for over 25 years, however with engineer (and fellow Grammy winner) Tom Schick, he has of late become a formidable and eclectic producer. He spoke a language we understood, but then took us effortlessly into the mystery.
We've made many records, and you know our M.O.: slow, quiet, sometimes melancholy, and, we hope, sometimes pretty...
How is this different from any other Low record?
- Mimi sings lead on five of the eleven songs (she usually only does one or two, despite being a fan favorite).
- Piano, lots of piano... and an acoustic guitar.
- Songs about intimacy, the drug war, the class war, plain old war war, archeology, and love."