Nine albums and close to 20 years in, Low are still going strong. There aren’t many bands that last so long, and even fewer that have done so much with so very little. As pioneers in the “slowcore” movement, they’ve essentially thrived in dark corners with little to no energy and the most minimal of arrangements. The constant torpor of what they do has left many a person bewildered, failing to find just what makes their songs so damn compelling. Outside of those times when you just want to be dragged down by some unhappy music, Low have kept themselves vital through strong songwriting and composition while throwing a couple curveballs into their trademark sound these last several years. 2002’s “Trust” was a push and pull affair as the band explored more expansive arrangements and the results of sharply building tension. Glossy producer Dave Fridmann was at the helm for the surprisingly noisy “The Great Destroyer” in 2005, as well as 2007’s “Drums and Guns”, which naturally placed emphasis on percussion and percussive elements. After a bit of a break, Low recruited pop producer Matt Beckley to helm their new album “C’mon”. Given that Beckley has worked with Katy Perry and Avril Lavigne among others, it’s an odd choice for the band to make, but if anybody can help them diversity their sound he probably can.
The fascinating thing is that “C’mon” is what could best be described as Low’s return to their roots. Contrary to that thought, this record isn’t a return to their slowcore days, but does have a far more traditional and normal feel for the band compared to their last few releases. There’s not some theme or sonic exploration, just Low doing what Low does best. They’ve also acquired a few new tricks over the course of their last few records, and rather than completely ignore what they did there, these things get incorporated into the overall sound. As such, “C’mon” is a fuller and richer record than most of the band’s previous releases, but still holding true to the very relaxed and relatively depressing vibe that’s their bread and butter. This album was recorded inside a church, and it carries the echoes and reverent beauty of the location. Call it the auditory equivalent of dimming sunlight streaming through stained glass windows. The thing is, though there are plenty of moments with gently plucked acoustic guitars or a touch of strings, you’re still held back at a distance, as if creating pure intimacy or warmth would ruin what the band is trying to accomplish. Given that’s been Low’s M.O. since their first album though, this is hardly new or unexpected. It can’t hurt to wish though.
One of the more exciting things about “C’mon” is the increase in upbeat melodies and lyrics. Normally listening to a Low record is like being dragged through the mud, and it’s never likely to put you in a good mood. Rather than outright dark though, there’s some uplift and more meditative stuff happening with the new album. The melody of opening track “Try to Sleep” is deceptive in its xylophone glimmer and positively lovely harmonies courtesy of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. The lyrics tell the full story, with lines like, “You try to sleep/but then you never wake up”. Sounds lovely, but the words don’t match the tone. A better grasp of the band’s more optimistic outlook comes with “You See Everything”, for example when Parker sings, “On the shore, we recline/come on in, the water’s fine/so fine”. Some songs though, like “Majesty/Magic” and “Nightingale” are less lyric-heavy (or fail to make much sense) but carry a lighter, less dramatic flair about them. It’s by no means perfect, but functions more as a relief from the far heavier disposition of their more recent albums. For fans of their last couple efforts though, fear not, because there’s still plenty to drag you down and hold your mood in a steady brood. Sometimes it just feels right to have that sort of soundtrack when you’re depressed.
The cause of concern on “C’mon” is that it shows a band that appears to have no idea where it’s headed next. The subtle variations in style on the record showcase that challenge while remaining true to that classic Low sound. That’s another issue – after a couple albums of mixing things up in both a good and bad way, “C’mon” is almost a retreat back to familiar territory while also trying to incorporate some of the new tools they’ve developed since their early days. The good news is that if you liked Low before, chances are you’ll like Low now. By that same token, if you’ve found the band difficult before, you’ll have fewer issues with them now. That improvement in accessibility is about the only thing worth writing home about on this record. That is, outside of the generally serene beauty Low normally provides. There’s no clear indicator of exactly what Low can do to advance their sound back to a level where critical acclaim is waiting for them on their doorstep. Maybe after such a long time together and so many records, they’ve finally run out of fresh ideas and are content to hold fast on their current pathway. No matter how the band fares now and in the future though, they continue to deserve our respect – even if that doesn’t count for much these days.