Here’s the deal: Low are not, and most likely will never be, a band that plays peppy music. No one will ever do a jig to a Low song; it would just look like some weird tic rather than an actual choreographed dance. In fact, there are some Low songs that are so delicate and plodding, you could blow them over with a sigh. That’s how slow Low can play. Grandma-driving-in-the-fast-lane slow. Sloth slow.
So to say that Low have now suddenly gone all rock, like there will be people in the front row of the trio’s shows with devil-horned fists pumping above their mullets—it’s really all relative. Compared to what Low used to be, the Low that a decade ago made a promise to itself to only play hushed songs that moved at a snail’s pace, finding the hypnotic tension in vast spaces and open atmospheres.
The new Low, the one that created The Great Destroyer (Sub Pop), is like some hyperactive indie-rock juggernaut. The songs flow ketchup-fast now rather than like molasses. Frontman Alan Sparhawk cranks up the distortion on occasion, playing with feedback like it’s Play-Doh to mold. And there are songs that are almost-almost-jig worthy, or at least perky enough to be called pop rather than slowcore. And all of this has left some people—fans, critics, friends, everyone but Low—holding their jaws in their hands.
For bassist Zak Sally, though, the whole thing makes complete sense. “This record had to happen now. It needed to happen now,” he says. “You keep going and learning things and making new records, and it all builds on itself. This is the result. That’s why I’m the most proud of this record. You can say it’s loud or poppy, but it’s a very honest representation of us right now. This is what we had to do right now.”
And really, it’s not like this is something new. Low have been inching toward The Great Destroyer for years, throwing out an occasional “fast” song or raising the volume for effect. If the group’s last album, the contemplative Trust, was a chapter in a book, some English major would have been screaming, “Foreshadowing!” Like everything with the band, though, such things were done subtly, as a way to play up the nuance. There were still plenty of traditional Low moments book-ending such treasonous experiments. Nothing got out of hand.
By comparison, The Great Destroyer sounds like a revolt. And in some ways it is, Sally admitting that he and his bandmates, frontman Alan Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker, finally decided to commit to dismantling Low’s original framework. “Us playing the way we did in the early days was very important to us,” he says. “And who we’ve been in the last three years pushing against that and stepping away from it was also important, but it was tentative. We were trying different things. But a time arrives when you can’t be tentative anymore. We had no intentions with this record other than that we wouldn’t back off from what needed to be done, regardless of whether that sounded like Low.”
Which, The Great Destroyer does. There are still the tightly written songs, the great interplay between Sparhawk and Parker’s voices, the tendency toward big moments where the music just opens up like a meadow. It all now happens at a canter rather than a walk. Sure, “California” is probably more of a pop song than Low have ever written, complete with jangly guitars and a jaunty beat. And “Just Stand Back” does feel like a lost Matthew Sweet gem. But “Silver Rider” still clings to the old ways—a hushed folk song covered in gauze of noise and shimmering harmonies. And when everything goes Pink Floyd during the bridge of “On the Edge of,” it’s awe-inspiring, the band creating something stunning out of messy distortion and feedback.
And Sally knows it. “When we finished this record, we were like, ‘We did something here,’” he says. But because the record is being taken as such a departure for the band, it might seem like Sally is trying to defend what the band has done. He’s not. He doesn’t really feel like he has to. He’s just trying to explain something that he really has no explanation for.
“I feel like this record is more intangible than the others,” he says. “I was having a conversation about this with Alan after the record was done, and he said, ‘If you can explain it in words, then you wouldn’t have to write music about it.’ These songs on the record are really their own explanation. Alan said he was dreading doing press for this record because he’d already said it all. He didn’t have anything to add. And I feel the same way. There’s really nothing more that we could add.”
LOW The Velvet Room, 149 W. 200 South. Monday March 21, 8 p.m. 800-888-8499