Steve Albini, Steve Fisk, Mark Kramer, Dave Fridmann and Jeff Tweedy, they all have something in common. Despite all being fantastic and highly acclaimed producers, they have all been behind the decks on a Low album. Tweedy is the latest to take control of Low's sound, he's been trusted to produce Low's 10th studio album, in their 20th anniversary year. It doesn’t seem that long ago since we had our hands on Low's ninth studio album C'mon - it's been two years. You may remember my review of C'mon, no? Let me refresh your memmory: "Whether or not they can improve all depends on how much time they take to focus on a direction." C'mon is a guitar heavy album with a faster tempo than their now elderly recordings in the 90s and 00s. My hypothesis has turned out to be accurate, Low have indeed focussed on a new direction with The Invisible Way.
Alan Sparhawk sings: "Well you could always count on your friends to get you high, that's right. And you could always count on the rents to get you by, you could fly. And now they make you piss into a plastic cup, and give it up," on the opening track "Plastic Cup". Sparhawk's lyrics tend to be imaginative, relatable and covered in metaphors and meanings. He's mixed two unusual Low subjects, archaeology and the war on drugs. The instrumentation is built around the world famous Low light percussion, acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies delivered by Sparhawk's wife Mimi Parker in her most dominant role on a Low album. At the end of the song, Sparhawk sings: "Well maybe you should go and write your own damn song, and move on." The lyrics are very presumptuous, and in regards to this ending lyric it seems like Sparhawk is directing this track at modern artists who dig up old influences and regurgitate their music, and of course, live a life of drugs.
"Amethyst" is in reference to quartz, though closer to home - Lake Superior, Duluth, Minnesota. The married couple sing: "You always hide, so deep inside the Amethyst mine," you wouldn't be wrong in thinking this track is about a passionate deep love, keeping the archaeological theme running. The vocal sits on top of a slow instrumental with dark piano chords, minimal acoustic guitar and a typical slow, steady drum beat. There's a lovely section of piano towards the end, where the high notes are hit instead of the low notes. It's on this note, where Low come into their own. The direction they have taken: piano. "So Blue" is one of the most beautiful Low tracks I've ever heard. They have a big discography with heart-wrenching lyricism and instrumentation, but "So Blue" has Parker take lead vocal, and my god does she let the cat out of the bag. She has two vocals, a quiet high pitched vocal and a more prominent deeper vocal. It's an angelic vocal, with Steve Garrington's graceful piano. Sparhawk isn’t completely absent, he does add only the fundamentals on electric guitar, just to take the track forward and give the listener a little bit more than Parker, the piano and another light percussion. And it continues with "Holy Ghost", where Parker takes lead yet again. Sparhawk's acoustic guitar is the focus with extremely minimal piano and percussion. The progression is alluring and Parker's vocal never fails to live up to expectation.
The vocal pairing is reunited for the fifth track "Waiting". This is a very short and simple track with Sparhawk and Parker singing loud over chilled instrumentation. It's a pretty song and clearly quite intimate, typical Low. We have plenty of name mentions in "Clarence White". First of all, Clarence White, acoustic guitarist and what seems to be one of Sparhawk's influences on The Invisible Way. Josh Murray, you'll have to help me out with this one Sparhawk... And towards the end Charlton Heston, with Sparhawk reliving some nostalgic childhood memories. "Four Score" follows - and like the previous two tracks - leaves without saying goodbye. This little section on The Invisible Way sounds a little too dry; it's not got the excitement of "So Blue" or the lyricism and catchiness of "Plastic Cup". The instrumentation is as minimal as ever, with Sparhawk performing a terrific job on the electric guitar and likewise for Garrington on piano and bass.
"Just Make It Stop" demonstrates the melancholy side of Low. The pre-release single features Parker on lead vocal and the backing of her band mates’ musical intensity to make this track a single. On the previous tracks, Low have been without a killer verse / chorus / verse structure, and to be honest they don't really need it. "Just Make It Stop" is the one track on The Invisible Way with fast tempo, loud instrumentation and an upbeat rhythm. "Mother" brings the listener back down to Low's level with a sad track with delicate piano and an emotional Sparhawk. It's a break from the single, and an introduction to the strongest track on The Invisible Way, "On My Own". Low are in a standard tempo, the drumming is buoyant and the bass animated. Sparhawk delivers a cute vocal with Parker mirroring his vocal. After two minutes of this cheerful Low track, "On My Own" turns gloom. The electric guitar with distortion that we've been without for 30 minutes makes a surprise appearance. It strikes like a bolt of lightning, with the spacious, reverberated drumming and an optimistic left-sided piano. A few minutes of this fantastic instrumental finalises with Sparhawk practically shouting peculiarly: "Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday."
The final song is also one of the best on The Invisible Way. "On Our Knees" is the fifth and final track with Parker as lead vocalist. This transformation of Sparhawk lead to Parker lead is down to her cult status and arguably stronger vocals on the sadder of Low's back catalogue. Low ends the album in a splendid way, leaving the listener stunned. The five minutes of "On My Own" hasn't quite worn off yet, but the increasing instrumentation and powerful vocal of "On Our Knees" is just as extravagant as the previous.
Low are one of my all-time favourite artists. It's tricky to criticise such modern prettiness in singer-songwriter / indie folk. Low shy away from the term slowcore, and they're right to do so. They may have the slow tempo and the long, dreary vocals with harmonies, but they are a core minimalistic folk band that like to play a bit of rock. The Invisible Way sees Low venture away from the electric guitar driven indie rock of C'mon, back to the simplistic and anticlimactic albums of the late 90s. The electric guitar is almost taken out completely, making only cameo appearances. The Invisible Way allows the third and least known member of the trio Steve Garrington, to take control as the driving force. He uses his piano to direct Low into a direction they've never really gone down before. It works on "So Blue" and it most certainly does the job on "Just Make It Stop". It's been two years since C'mon, and to me Low never left - or at least, they never left my listening habits.