Somehow, with each new release (and they come regularly, every two or three years), Low manage to find new ways of protracting their deceptively beautiful melodies. Each new page in their story serves to remind that they are so much more than the ‘slowcore’ caricature still occasionally used as a line of critical attack. Their last album, the Jeff Tweedy produced The Invisible Way, foregrounded natural acoustics, piano and the vocals of Mimi Parker.
In something of a volte-face from that approach, Ones And Sixes is their first album to experiment extensively with drum machines, keyboards and electronics since 2007’s dark, challenging but hugely underrated Drums And Guns. It also incorporates moments of excoriating volume and muscularity that hark back to the more strident and aggressive sound of 2005‘s The Great Destroyer. It is arguable that Ones And Sixes is their most fully integrated album to date – a richly satisfying and coherent work drawing together many of the different strands of their career so far.
The opening song on Ones And Sixes is entitled Gentle. Sometimes this is a perfect one-word description of their music – but it’s also a deliberate misnomer. Even when the music is at its softest and most delicate, disquiet and discord are never far away. Spanish Translation might be the most beautiful and wistful song here – but even this has an explosive chorus, and speaks of substantial, unexpected change. As with most of the songs here, there are interjections from distorted noise or abrasive effects, and the keyboard sounds add a sense of murkiness.
Perhaps the greatest of Low’s resources is the purposeful contrast between the irresistible prettiness of their melodies and the darkness of their themes. What Part Of Me is a sort of digital cousin to The Invisible Way’s Just Make It Stop – an alarmingly simple, relentless and insistent pop melody used as a veneer for anxiety and confusion in relationships. The Innocents, also built on a theme so pretty as to almost be saccharine, is lyrically threatening (as are the distorted electronic drums and bass frequencies that herald its arrival).
Elsewhere, there are more transparently menacing moments. No Comprende is built on a portentous chug (new wave-style electric guitars are a recurring theme on this album – see also Kid In The Corner) that eventually gives way to an almost absurdly slow, half time dance between the vocals of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. It sounds graceful and light, but Parker is actually repeating the words “our house is on fire”. Landslide, at nearly ten minutes the band’s longest song, is steadfast and patient, but it unfolds in ways that are mysterious, unpredictable and dangerous (strafing electric guitars, pounding treated drums, moments of misleading tranquility).
Whilst there are few sounds in modern independent music as beautiful and well blended as Sparhawk and Parker harmonising, Ones And Sixes further develops one trend from The Invisible Way in having songs that either solely or primarily feature Parker. Again, she sometimes harmonises with herself. The most successful example of this might be the glorious, shimmering Into You, where Parker’s sepulchral double tracking is accompanied by musical flutters and sighs. There’s also the stranger, more opaque Congregation – a song that seems uncertain in the best possible way. Elsewhere, the combination of the two voices is as potent as ever. When interacting with Sparhawk, Parker often sounds soothing or reassuring (the ooohs at the end of Kid In The Corner and What Part Of Me), but their union seems permanently on the verge of metaphorical collapse (at the end of Lies, she sounds transcendent). That they are still here, making consistently excellent albums 20 years into their career, is a major triumph.