One of my earliest, and most formative musical experiences as an adolescent was watching VH1′s television miniseries, “Seven Ages of Rock,’ narrated by Dennis Hopper.
Probably the most powerful scene in the entire series is a heartbreaking interview with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, in which he describes a recording project that he essentially made up in order to get Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain away from his Seattle home, and away from the dark, drug-addled spiral of depression he had fallen into.
A beautiful dirge plays like a funeral precession in the background of the interview, which inevitably arrives at Cobain’s suicide. This breathtaking song is Low’s “Anon.”
Though I knew the story of Cobain’s final days well – even at that age – there was something about “Anon,” the opening song on the band’s 1996 album, “The Curtain Hits The Cast,” that made this particular re-telling of it really sink in. Even in the years since – during which Cobain’s story has been told and retold endlessly – whenever I think of how it all came to an end for him, I think of that seething slow burner.
Though there’s undeniably a tragic sense to Low’s greatest works, it also has a spare elegance that ensures that even when the band is at its most titanic, it never sounds in over its head. “Ones And Sixes,” which was recorded in rural Wisconsin and released on Sept. 11, traverses ground that can be at once icy, disquieting and impossibly expansive.
Two decades into its career, Low is still finding ways to morph and transform itself, without becoming untethered from the gradual but gargantuan emotional shifts that have defined its work for so long.
Though some of those shifts are built up and repeated like a mantra throughout a song, some arise from nowhere. After the first chorus of opener “Gentle,” a song that lives up to its title with unobtrusive beats and delicate keyboards, a small bit of feedback oscillating idly in the background suddenly swells to the forefront of the mix.
Just before it overwhelms the song completely, it extinguishes itself before the harmonies of guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhawk and drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker. It is the loudest curveball the track throws, but one that snaps the listener to attention, lest they think that “Ones And Sixes” will prove a relaxing, understated listen.
Sparhawk’s “No Comprende” practically crawls up your skin, with a tense palm-muted guitar riff and harrowing harmonies from Parker, who at one point quakes “the house is on fire.” With its vocals removed, it could easily serve as the theme to the inevitable re-boot of “Jaws.”
Though the trio actually veers towards writing something approaching a normal, mid-tempo pop-rock song on both “No End” and “What Part of Me,” and a pounding, near 10-minute battle march on the album’s penultimate track, “Landslide,” “Ones And Sixes”’ finest moments are its most skeletal.
Parker’s immaculate “Into You” has the most simple of electronic beats, and little around it other than some atmospheric noodling from Sparhawk and bright keyboards that fade in and out of the picture. The album’s closer, the widescreen epic, “DJ,” is the album at its most cinematic.
Sparhawk’s glistening notes ricochet off the outer edges of the listener’s imagination, while a slow-motion piano melody and Parker’s bass drum quarter notes provide the structure of any dream the listener would like to construct around the song.
Some listeners may see Low’s glacial tempos and unpredictable peaks and valleys as something that grounds its music in realism. Once one digs past “Ones And Sixes”’ astounding production, that point becomes clear.
In a way that tends to remind me of Frank Black and Kim Deal of the Pixies, Sparhawk and Parker sound like the most normal of people. They just so happen to have been gifted with the ability to channel music that is seemingly from another planet.
But whether you hear “Ones And Sixes” as a dose of reality, or listen to it to give even the most mundane events of your life added gravity, it can still surprise; especially in those moments when you think you finally have it pinned down.
Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected]