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Low: The Invisible Way (Album Review)

The passage of time seems to be on Alan Sparhawk’s mind. On “Plastic Cup”—which opens Low’s 10th album, The Invisible Way—the singer-guitarist imagines a far-flung future where archeologists are digging up the ruins of America. They unearth a plastic cup once used to take a piss test and wonder if it might have been the chalice of a king. As Sparhawk unspools his absurd yet haunting premise—one with some curious religious undertones that may or may not have to do with his Mormon faith—he makes his acoustic guitar rustle like a nest of insects. In the background, singer-drummer Mimi Parker takes the high harmony (while cooing the word “high”) and lays down a skeletal beat that marks off seconds as well as centuries.

This year, Sparhawk and Parker celebrate their 20th anniversary—not as a married couple, although they are, but as the core of Low. Since forming in 1993, the band has had its ups and downs, although it’s never stooped to making a bad record. In fact, Low’s been on a roll since 2005’s The Great Destroyer, in which the band rebirthed itself as a bona fide rock trio. Sparhawk and Parker have never lost their signature sense of spaciousness and melancholy, though, even after losing longtime bassist Zak Sally immediately following The Great Destroyer. But there’s a neat loop formed by The Invisible Way. While calling back to the group’s roots as a slowcore pioneer, the disc is mostly an unplugged affair. And where recent albums dabbled in distortion and synthesizers, Invisible is all about acoustic guitar and piano.

It’s also about that singular, heart-stopping Low hush. “Amethyst” converts piano chords into soft, wet snowfalls, even as it lets single notes poke out like naked twigs. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy produces Low for the first time here, and it can’t be a coincidence that there’s a marked, if stark, country-rock tint to Invisible. On “Holy Ghost,” Parker comes on like Emmylou Harris at her most wounded; “Clarence White” nostalgically pays homage to the late member of The Byrds (along with, weirdly, Charlton Heston). “Four Score” weaves a symphony out of whispers, while “Mother” twangs plainly and poignantly.

By the time a distorted guitar finally makes an appearance halfway through the disc’s penultimate song, “On My Own,” it doesn’t feel like an intrusion. Instead, it’s as if Low has taken its tried-and-true songwriting formula—a slow buildup into a smoldering climax—and stretched it to the length of an entire album. And an entirely superb one. If that’s a metaphor for longevity, so be it.
(review by: JH)