All albums are to a degree informed by the circumstances and environment in which they were written and recorded but this feels especially relevant for Double Negative, the twelfth album by Duluth trio Low. It may not be overtly political but there can be no doubt it’s a direct response to the recent history of their native country. It’s clear from the eleven tracks here that making a regular album was simply not an option on this occasion.
2015’s Ones And Sixes hinted at a subtle experimentation with electronics but it’s immediately apparent that Double Negative offers a huge leap into extreme, previously unexplored territory. It comes off the back of a year of inventiveness and recalibration which included breathtakingly powerful shows at Union Chapel in London and Westerkerk in Amsterdam that repositioned and reimagined their music via church organs. It’s now possible to see Double Negative as a logical culmination to those performances.
Radical opening track Quorum immediately seizes attention, sounding like listening to Low during a particularly violent electrical storm). As the album unfolds however it reveals itself to be another fantastically consistent collection of songs that beautifully slots in alongside their other albums. Sure, there’s jarring noise like nothing else in their catalogue but it also paradoxically sees the strengthening and purifying of Low’s essence to arguably it’s most powerful form to date.
Tempest is equally confrontational, setting a damaged, disfigured vocal from Alan Sparhawk against a scarred, distorted background. Yet, defying the odds, tangible emotion finds a way through and at times it’s like listening to a crumbling, esoteric lullaby. The Son, The Sun follows a similar drone-based aesthetic. 2007’s Drums And Guns may have been their first foray into experimentation but this is clearly one step further.
Dancing And Blood retains the radicalism of the album but begins to also impart elements of their core sound. Mimi Parker’s vocals filter through the flickering sonic terrain, providing some familiar touchpoints and the stillness of the outro recalls their early albums. Fly is closer to what casual listeners of the band might expect of a Low album, Parker’s vocals swooping delicately over pensive rumblings. Always Up meanwhile offers a soothing, focusing antidote to the earlier distortion. It’s the most Low moment on the album, featuring some exquisite, stop-you-in-your-tracks vocal interplay between Parker and Sparhawk.
Always Trying To Work It Out is arguably even better, reconciling old and new Low in truly magnificent fashion. Sparhawk’s vocals, processed and stretched out of shape, contrast with the undiminished purity of those of Parker, showing how they still form an extraordinary alliance after all these years. Not much can compare to those moments when they let the music fall away, isolating the sound of their voices.
Dancing And Fire sees Sparhawk singing of how “it’s more a let it out than let it go, it’s not the end, just the end of hope”, a compelling exercise in balancing bleakness with beauty. The irony is that their music continues to provide solace, guidance and comfort to thousands. Rome (Always In The Dark) manages to be both scorching and towering, built on deep-rooted bass reverberations from Steve Garrington and is reminiscent of the similarly-disposed Landslide from Ones & Sixes. These moments of semi-familiarity sound even more powerful given the album’s overriding ‘alternative’ context. Disarray closes the album and brings everything together, electronically tinged, masterfully textured, strongly melodic and lyrically impactful.
Double Negative is an album that will endure for a long time. It’s a thrilling development that proves how Low continue to release music of extremely high standards, restlessly creative and never content to stand still. It may feel like a time when the world is moving in confounding, exasperating ways but Low always find a way to offer an alternative and ultimately make it better. We should never stop treasuring their music.