Low - The Invisible Way

I wrote a review yesterday in which I remarked there is something to be said for not standing still. It seems ironic that I now sit down to review a band that, over their 10 album history, has vehemently denied this statement. Far from re-inventing the genre they helped to define, Low have been content in their 20 year career to fly comfortably under the hype radar, and as a result have carved a devoted fan base and a productive groove for themselves. Guitar reverb, haunting and at times astral vocal harmony, and a penchant for deep seated, anxiety based content have provided a solid grounding from which they rarely stray. In fact reading a review of their 1994 album 'I Could Live In Hope' in preparation to write this review I am struck by how the reviewer could easily be writing about The Invisible Way. Progress, then, has been slow, but it needn't be rushed.

Low have always conducted themselves with a certain dignity and grace that shines through without a hint of pretension. A very difficult balance to achieve, especially for a band refusing to experiment. On C'mon, their brilliant 2011 record, everything finally appeared to click wonderfully in to place. Whereas there were awkward moments on recent previous records, such as the slightly off-centre harmony on Sandanista on Drums and Guns, the misplaced raw aggression on The Great Destroyer or the disappointingly stale tracks such as John Prine on Trust, C'mon combined all of these elements and presented them brilliantly, an invigorating blend of much needed forward motion, stunningly effective harmonies and concise, explainable, relatable lyrical content. It was the consummate Low album and was recieved thusly.

The Invisible Way, then, finds them in fine form. It also sees them teaming up with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame, interestingly a man not renowned for standing still stylistically, so to speak. His roots in country can be seen slathered all over this record, as acoustic guitars play a starring role throughout, a clear technique change from their previous few releases that focused more on heavier, reverbed and distorted guitars to create a lush yet menacing atmosphere. The Invisible Way sits less comfortably on that inherent conflict that always lies under the surface of a Low release, however it is a pleasant contrast to experience. It provides a light, a tempering influence.

The first two tracks, Plastic Cup and Amethyst, do set a sonic tone for the record that isn't greatly deviated from. The opener sees Alan Parker musing about the progression of two of the most important wordly affairs: getting high and getting by, with Sparhawk sweetly enforcing his delivery. It's a dull opening, one that doesn't inspire confidence, and even feels slightly cast off as Parker disdainfully remarks at the end 'well maybe you should go and write your own damn song, and move on', possibly a dig at himself that almost feels as though it renders the song null and void of any message or point. Amethyst, thankfully, provides a much needed depth and insight that is carried through the rest of the record. A slow moving, rumbling piano chord progression is helped forward by an almost dancing acoustic guitar as Parker menacingly slides in with an observational track about social anxiety and its dimming effect on someone he clearly holds in high esteem, with phrases like 'you always hide so deep in the amethyst mine' and 'afraid the things they say, they reach'. It's a consistent lyrical theme they adhere to, not always as coherent or clear as this, but the undercurrent of fear and a gamit of different anxieties are introduced, but not always exposed.

More so than usual, Low lack forward momentum here. On C'mon the melodies seemingly wrote themselves. Even Witches, which wasn't a particularly peppy song was able to sleepily boulder along, Parker had the balance of impactful spits and droning monotone down to a science to keep things moving. On The Invisible Way, tracks like Holy Ghost and Waiting stall and tread water. Despite Sparhawk's hauntingly sincere performance on the former, a description possibly of fleeting spiritual encounters tinged with abandonment (now I don't know much / but I can tell when something's wrong / and something's wrong) the song splutters, peaking at the minute mark and dropping back in to a reclusive haze. When they try to really force a beat, like on Clarence White, it lends itself to awkwardness, although Parker's rawer display does endear. Four Score is another lower moment, a meek country-bound song you might hear at 3am in a deserted bar in Southern America. It seems like Sparhawk snagged the raw end of the deal, being stuck with a couple of difficult tracks with which to work, despite this she does a good job harmonising with herself. Her lyrics are ambiguous but that only enhances the mood of the record, it sounds downtrodden.

The frustration then comes with tracks like So Blue, On My Own and the brilliant Just Make It Stop. Clear displays of what Low are capable of, yet too thin on the ground to elevate the whole project. So Blue reminds me of something from Drums And Guns, possibly Murderer, but the piano gives it a much more organic feel. Sparhawk really gets her teeth in to it as well, again harmonising with herself, she emotes brilliantly about a torn state of mind over a fractured relationship, 'So blue with you' is contrasted with 'Can no longer bare, to miss the dance, with you'. Her vocals may not be as iconically 'Low' as when she harmonises for Parker's crackly drawl, but she is clearly the more accomplished singer. Her ability to harmonise so sweetly with herself is testament to an impressive range. She also snares the highlight track on the record, Just Make It Stop. Again you feel Jeff Tweedy's hands all over it as another swelling piano section underpinned by almost frantic sounding drone guitars back Sparhawk as she pleads "You see them close to the edge /  I'm at the end of my rope  / the rope is starting to thread,  / I'm trying to keep my hold" before an impassioned chorus of "If I could just make it stop / I can tell the whole world  / to get out of the way." It's an uncharacteristically clear description of her determined mindset, and with the help of such a strong backing it acts as a call to arms and really enlivens the second half of the record, it comes out of nowhere. 

6.5/10. After progressing on from their early - mid 2000s lull, Low have stalled slightly again with this release. It lacks the complete package feel of C'mon. Too many instances where progress is made then surrendered through stagnant acoustic ballads. Parker and Sparhawk both deliver very solid performances, and the lyrical content is typical Low, a blend of introspective, anxiety-focused musings and observational touch points that always remain sincere and natural. Even the possibly cringe-inducing Mother tackles a timelessly tricky subject with poise and grace. The mood and themes are what saves this record, it could be time for a new producer. 
Best Tracks: So Blue, Just Make It Stop, On My Own

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