HEY WHAT proves that even down a bandmember, Low is still one of the best at perpetual, successful reinvention.
Fresh off of another lineup change, Low puts together an impressively tense experimental pop album with HEY WHAT, a record sure to rank high in their large discography for years to follow. Low’s first album as a duo, the sonic focus is not only on the group’s famous harmonies, but in the production that practically collapses around the songs. Breaking out of previous molds and crafting new sounds would seem like a superhuman task for a band that’s been playing for nearly three decades, but that’s exactly what Low accomplishes on HEY WHAT, and the effort has a stunning payoff.
Low has not been particularly known for writing a generation’s worth of songs about love, more often focusing on life’s tumults and the darkness found in relationships. After bassist Steve Garrington left the band to focus on other projects, they are now officially a two-piece duo for the first time in their history, and while couple Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have certainly always been the central focus of the band throughout its different lineups, it’s notable that they opted to focus on this work entirely as a twosome, especially considering the romantic themes littering these tracks. Sonically, they lean into their shoegaze-y roots and occasionally touch on the quieter sounds that made them famous in the first place, but the real star here, however, is the LP’s production. Intentional glitches form the rhythm around tight harmonies, blasting guitars that are pitched to sound like they’re maxing out your equipment, and sharp tonal shifts appear like cracks in a wall, willful imperfection in something otherwise tightly cohered. It’s an album that sounds like it’s falling apart in real-time, each subsequent track lent increasing intensity, listeners left to what could happen or where Low might go on the song next. Sparhawk and Parker situate all this within an intentional irony, their songs of togetherness being broken down and rent as they are experienced, articulating for listeners a unique expression of the duality of romance.
This approach reaches its catharsis on “The Price You Pay (It Might Be Wearing Off),” the only ripping-hot rock track on the record, replete with chugging guitars, soaring vocal harmonies, and, at last, the sense of some palpable relief offered over the seven-minute runtime. Achieving this kind of visceral, experiential grasp on listeners is a rare feat, one that Low has been historically great at capturing, and HEY WHAT is not only not an exception, it’s a pinnacle. The most brilliant thing about Low has always been their ability to reinvent themselves as a band on every record, whether that’s in the form of a several-minute drone piece, a soft indie rock cut, or a bombastic pop anthem. It’s in no small part to this particular skillset that HEY WHAT is such a notable success, why Low remains essential as a duo, and why it seems more promise than possibility that each new iteration of the band will always be more interesting than the last.
Published as part of Album Roundup — September 2021 | Part 3.