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TBTS Reviews: Low, The Invisible Way

March 19, 2013
Low, The Invisible Way, out today on Sub Pop Records.

Low, The Invisible Way, out today on Sub Pop Records.

If you’re familiar with Low’s brilliant, expansive, gloriously grandiose 2011 album C’mon, you’ll know from the opening notes of The Invisible Way that the band is after something different this time. As The Invisible Way moves forward through its 11 mostly hushed, sparse, and intimate tracks, you’ll hear this great band pursuing a more direct, scaled-back sound than what they explored on C’mon. If you agree that Low makes eminently spiritual, quasi-gospel music — I firmly believe that they do — then whereas C’mon was fit for a cathedral (figuratively and literally), The Invisible Way is better suited for solitary, candle-lit reflection and prayer.

The Invisible Way was produced by Jeff Tweedy, frontman of Wilco, one of modern rock’s leading lights and most critically acclaimed acts. On both his band’s last few albums and his growing resume as a producer, Tweedy has come to demonstrate a rather consistent and recognizable aesthetic that emphasizes those qualities of The Invisible Way mentioned above. The commonality is rooted in what could be described as a sonic modesty and an emphasis on quietness, intimacy, and warmth. Songs thus rendered seem to create an airy, cozy, well-appointed interior space and invite us into that space for a nice visit.

All this makes The Invisible Way an excellent Low album, though a departure from not only its immediate predecessor but also the rest of the band’s catalog. In thinking about this review, I went back and listened to the band’s first album, 1994’s I Could Live in Hope, and, as with C’mon, the new album sounds and feels strikingly different. Their debut certainly feels confined to a small space, as does The Invisible Way, but back then Low’s “space” largely felt dark, cold, foreboding, and claustrophobic. A place of hiding, not abiding. Low’s early music was certainly beautiful and stirring in its own way, but warm and welcoming it was not. As I wrote in 2011, Low has since gone in several different directions over the years, many gratifying, all indicative of restless creativity. All those roads led to what I still perceive to be the band’s finest hour, the majestic C’mon.

Though not as lofty as C’mon, the beguiling Invisible Way is still an album that most other bands would kill to make. A couple of songs sound like nothing the band has done before. “Clarence White” is shuffling, twangy, mildly funky country-blues, and “Just Make it Stop” is a comparatively bouncy, up-tempo track that sounds like Low covering a Wilco tune. Elsewhere, the “Tweedy sound” takes what could have been a handful of rather standard Low cuts, brooding and weighty, and lightens them with plenty of acoustic guitar and piano, neither of which has received much emphasis on their prior albums. Only the track “On My Own” gives much hint that Low frontman Alan Sparhawk has been seriously rocking out in the Retribution Gospel Choir lately. Even here, the production forces Sparhawk’s extended guitar solo to politely share space with the other instrumentation rather than towering over it.

Album highlights for me include both “Clarence White” and “Just Make it Stop,” as mentioned above, along with the devastatingly beautiful opening trio of “Plastic Cup,” “Amethyst,” and lead single “So Blue.” My only complaint, and it’s a minor one, is that a few of the down-tempo tracks tend to run together. In other words, that comforting interior space conjured by the album can at times lull you right to sleep unless you’re fully in the mood for quiet reflection. A couple of “outside” tracks — spacious, loud, maybe even a bit stormy and thunderous — could have provided some valuable variety. Still, The Invisible Way is a sublime piece of work, and as I said when I reviewed C’mon, Low is on a short list of veteran bands with whom I’ve become even more engaged because of their most recent output. At or near a career peak after nearly 20 years is a wonderful place for Low to be. Wonderful for us fans, anyway, and this fan is grateful.

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