Always One Worth Waiting For
327 · 3 May 01
Low: Things We Lost in the Fire
This was supposed to be the album that would tell me whether Low are now the second of what would then be my two new favorite artists, since I retired Big Country, Kate Bush, Game Theory and Marillion to emeritus status and elevated Tori Amos. My three other best candidates, for a long time, had been Del Amitri, Runrig and Manic Street Preachers. Del Amitri haven't made a new studio album since 1997's Some Other Sucker's Parade, and probably haven't suggested that they're ever going to make one that I like better than 1989's Waking Hours, so they almost certainly belong to my first generation. Runrig still have my favorite live album and one of my DIDs, but those date from 1988 and 1993, with nothing since to challenge them, and my feelings about Runrig are clearly intertwined with my feelings about Big Country, so they too belong to an earlier me. Manic Street Preachers were up for reconsideration with Know Your Enemy, but although I'm very pleased with it, I think it also convinces me that they suffer from, from my perspective, scattered small critical lapses in judgment that will prove just enough to always keep them at least one level away from my purest adoration. Alanis Morissette, Mecca Normal and Mark Hollis haven't made new records in three or four years. Everclear put out two new albums that argue, to me, that they never really had more than one album of ideas. Stephin Merritt's going to have a hard time following up 69 Love Songs. I sure like Roxette a lot, but they're a sparkly singles band, and I'm fundamentally a glum album purist. I don't think Emm Gryner knows what she's going to be when she grows up yet. And that leaves me with Low. Statistical indications are promising: they made my Best-of-the-Nineties list on the strength of their composite output; Secret Name was second, in 1999, only to one of my other albums of the decade; they did a Christmas album so good it made me think twice about Christmas; and "Dinosaur Act", the advance single from this new album, was #2 on my 2000 song list.
So I expected to put Things We Lost in the Fire on, sit back, and feel one of two sensations, either the exquisite jolt of my last tenuous reservations being disintegrated, or the weirdly entrancing, melancholic realization that there is some tiny thing about them to which I cannot completely reconcile myself. Or, I suppose, the let-down of deciding that neither of these was ready to happen yet. What I get, instead, is a fourth feeling it hadn't occurred to me to expect, although if I'd pondered the geometry I should have thought of it. Instead of a hit, miss or undershot, this album overshoots. What I mean is, as I listen to it, wanting it to be the factor that makes up my mind about Low, I feel like I must somehow have made my mind up already. In place of the vertigo of part of my understanding of the world being rewritten, I feel the serene reassurance of some earlier change being once again ratified. Immersed in this new music, my body acts like it has always known it, like these songs were so unambiguously implied by the earlier albums that in a way I've already experienced them, or already formulated, in advance, my response to eventually hearing them. The simple conclusion, obviously, is that Low are one of my favorite bands, and maybe already were. But I overanalyze as a reflex; simple conclusions don't even have a chance. Can I really elevate an artist without a specific album to identify as the milestone? Boys for Pele isn't my favorite Tori Amos record, and might even be my least favorite of hers, but it's the one that made me sure about her, and thus the one I can turn to if Doubt ever requires me to reconstruct the foundation of my certainty. Things We Lost in the Fire isn't that, and I don't think Secret Name was, either. Was Christmas? Was I so distracted by the weird religio-social politics of my and Low's differing attitudes towards Christmas that I didn't notice it occasioning a small, vital change in my life? It's possible, I guess, and there's an appealing parallel between Christmas and Boys for Pele, both being the albums for which my support is most inflected by ambivalences. But the other possibility refuses to be dispelled: if I can't point to the album that made Low one of my favorite artists, maybe they're not, or at least not yet. Maybe this over/under tension isn't just a measurement of my enthusiasm, it's also descriptive, and there's something Secret Name needed more of, of which Things We Lost in the Fire needs less. And so I put it on again, not that I needed an excuse, and go through once more looking for clues.
One of the things I realize most immediately is that hearing "Dinosaur Act" months before the rest of the album has profoundly altered my response to it. It's the third track, but the first one, "Sunflower", opens with the same muted-guitar count-off, and the disorientation, as I expect frayed guitar and booming drums, and instead get meditative stair-step descents, throws me into a state of hyperawareness, after six elapsed seconds, that without my anticipatory obsessing over "Dinosaur Act" as a single most albums would need three or four songs to produce. Low are right, though, "Sunflower" is a better beginning than "Dinosaur Act" would have been, slow and building, Alan and Mimi's prayerful harmony gradually admitting Zach Wallace's nearly-subsonic double-bass, Jaron Childs' legato cello, Ida Pearle's Nyman-esque violin and somebody's spare piano, succinctly recapitulating Low's sonic evolution to-date. The lyrics are oblique and evocative, balancing death and discovery with birth and experience, and never explaining which kidnapping the counterposed halves of a ransom come from, leaving me to wild, self-incriminating assumptions about all the evils for which we implicitly demand payment. And if the one thing that kept "Dinosaur Act" out of #1 was its slightly indecisive conclusion, "Sunflower"'s ending is very nearly perfect, the final chorus resolving to a single unembellished note.
"Whitetail" comes in slowly, after that, an uncharacteristically restless cymbal fill from Mimi joined after a few measures by Zak's tolling bass and later by Alan's precisely strummed guitar. Storm noises augment the crescendo, Alan and Mimi murmuring "Closer, closer" in a neutral tone I vacillate between interpreting as mantra and condemnation. Mimi's cymbal line doesn't conclude so much as it's cut off, and then suddenly we're in "Dinosaur Act". I decided, by the second or third time I heard it, that it was the best single song Low have ever recorded, and nothing has tempted me to change my mind. The music has the band's trademark glacial underlying pace, and drops down close to silence in places, but the guitar distortion, reverberant kettle drums, simmering organ and flaring trumpets give it the energy of a song two or three times its pace. Alan and Mimi's effortless duet reminds me again that although Ida would still get my vote as the best harmony group currently working, on conventional grounds, Alan and Mimi come as close as two human beings ever have to producing a single voice out of two throats, and to me deserve as central a place in the shortest history of such things as Simon and Garfunkel, X or the Story. The lyrics are also among Low's best, I think, evasive and intensely poetic: "You were their daughter, / And your father flew airplanes. / You and your sister / Could tell by the backs of their hands / It was a dinosaur act. // And after expenses and pulling up fences, / No more airplanes. / And putting your foot down, / The nail shot up like a bright red snowflake, / Just like a dinosaur act. // And all through the dust, / You feel that you must / Hear the strains of a dove, / But it's a dinosaur act." So little said, so much encoded; childhoods, lost dreams, obsolete trades, helpless sadness, sudden trauma, stubborn hope, persistent hopelessness.
My Guided by Voices experience suggests that I might be better off never knowing anything about the personal lives of musicians, or finding a way to cordon off external knowledge from my experience of the music, but too many articles about Low point out that Alan and Mimi are Mormons. Usually I have the distinct sense that the writer has confused Mormonism with Scientology, and so thinks this revelation should be more sensational than it actually is, but regardless, I'm aware of it, and since I happen, from Orson Scott Card experiences, to know a fair amount about Mormonism, I've been waiting to see if I'd ever spot evangelism in their songs. Not so far. Parts of Christmas were clearly made by believers, I thought, but I couldn't detect anything specifically LDS. "Missouri" and "Secret Name" make more sense if you know some Mormon history and practice, but not a lot more. Things We Lost in the Fire never gets any more explicit than one unglossed Star of David reference, but there are two songs that hint, in Low's usual elliptical way, at critiques of secular society. "Medicine Magazines" is the first, "They'll never cure this thing / With medicine and magazines" concisely implicating the entire pharmaceutical/entertainment industry, which is increasingly difficult to think of as two different businesses. "How can it be that fun / When everyone around you / Dies so young?", they ask later, I think meaning life-expectancy in a lot more than a literal sense. And although the intoned question at the end, "I'm not your favorite one, / But who will walk you out / When it's all done?", could be interpreted as a complicated relationship dilemma, something about the liturgical clomp of the music makes me wonder if the narration hasn't momentarily switched to the point of view of a god, posing the strange (and unnervingly human) contention that you may not like him much, but you'll need him eventually. Actually, there would usually be an implied threat there, that if you don't believe in him he won't be there to walk you out, but here that seems to be absent, and the idea of a god whose central tenet is not a demand for faith but a promise of loyalty is intriguing and appealing, and I start to suspect that "Mormon" is an oversimplification of a far more complex personal theology.
And then I coast for a few songs. "Laser Beam" is bit of an early-Low throwback, minimal and eerie, and mainly serves to call my attention to the impressively unobtrusive production job again done by Steve Albini, overcoming his periodic penchant for confusing internal organs and souls, and thus substituting evisceration for portraiture. I can't figure out what date they're ruing having missed in the gauzy "July", and so form no strong emotional bonds with it. Most of "Embrace" sounds to me like a grim old folk song slowed down to quarter-speed, but it picks up for the last verse, Mimi launching into "I fell down the stairs, / I wished I were dead. / You ran for the light, / He handed me your head" as if recalling something painfully vivid.
I snap back to rapt attention for the album's second moral diatribe, "Whore". If you could somehow ignore the lyrics, which I can't and I don't think you'll be able to either, the first couple minutes of this song are about the album's most placid moments, a spare guitar arpeggio cycling somberly under Mimi's pellucid falsetto. Bass, distracted drums and Alan's lower voice join, and at around the two-and-a-half-minute mark Alan kicks the distortion pedal and the band starts what sounds to me like an excruciatingly gradual accelerando, except I haven't tried to time it and I might be imagining the acceleration. Instead of collapsing into catharsis, though, the conclusion abruptly retreats, and by the end it's only Mimi, a low bass, and a few twinkling cymbals and bells. "What is the whore you're living for? / Is it so wrong to think there's more?" could be taken as the album's most straightforwardly religious sentiment, unless you think they mean that everyone has a whore they're living for, whether they believe there's more or not, in which case the question is arguably trans-religious, an interpretation lent some additional plausibility by "You fill the house with bells / But who can live like that? / You want to speak like angels / But you can't.", although conversely this could be a comment on the difference between spiritual paraphernalia and spirituality.
"Kind of Girl" is another pause to me, an old-style song that seems a little empty surrounded by these denser new ones. I don't have any great theories for "Half your life you can't fit in, / Born without a stomach". Born without the ability to digest, or more metaphorically, without the ability to process? "Lesser things / Pull the strings / Of priests and kings" sounds like an allusion, but if it is, the referent eludes me. Easier to move on to the brief "Like a Forest", which I don't really understand either, but don't need to to enjoy, the string section surging in for what is practically Low's attempt at an Ida song, melodies and dynamics and all. (And I wonder how many years of joint-tour abuse Low are in for after misspelling Karla Schickele's first name in the thank-yous...) "Closer" has strings, too, but slows down again, and when the title shows up in the third verse, it seems significant to me that Low chose to name an album so much about finding with a hushed phrase about losing. "Things we lost in the fire; / How'd we ever get by?" How did they get by without them, after the fire, or how did they get by with them, before? How did they make records without violins and cellos and so many friends around them? How did claustrophobia not crush them? How did a record within a breath of expiry lead to a record two breaths away, and then three, and so to this record whose ending point, the gorgeous lullaby "In Metal" (punctuated by squeaks from Alan and Mimi's daughter Hollis, its object), is better measured in breaths after birth, not breaths until death? The crescendo "Whore" promised finally arrives, guitars and strings and keyboards merging into an affectionate blur, like all the world's whirling lights seen from Hollis' perspective as one gigantic mobile rotating around her head, or as if having a child hasn't just added one life to Alan and Mimi's little world, it's allowed (forced?) them to acknowledge everybody else who's been part of it all along. They aren't the first band to make the long journey from isolationism to expansiveness, and they haven't traveled as far as Mark Hollis (surely the name "Hollis" is a coincidence?), but in both relative magnitude and unexpectedness, Low and Talk Talk's journeys seem comparable to me, demonstrations of the inexorable power of an artist's patience, and the profound rewards for a listener's. Secret Name seemed like an end-point, and then Christmas seemed like an epilogue, but now I'm not so sure. After Things We Lost in the Fire, it all feels like part of one long story to me again, and one that is far from over.
And therein, maybe, is the explanation I was looking for, for how I feel while I listen to it, half thinking I have more than enough information to make up my mind, half thinking that I'm missing something critical. On one hand, if Alan and Mimi decided to quit music now and raise Hollis as organic farmers or innkeepers or border guards, I think they've done enough to secure their place. Many have lived forever on less. On the other hand, though, if there was this much immanent in Secret Name that they didn't yet know how to express, then it's insane to think that Things We Lost in the Fire is the end, either. If the distance from I Could Live in Hope to Things We Lost in the Fire isn't as great as the distance from Talk Talk to Mark Hollis, maybe that only means Low are that far from done. And if that's so, or that's what it feels more true to believe, then maybe the uncertainty I'm experiencing is my instinctive respect for incompletion. You don't clap in the middle of a song, just because you like the first half so much. So Low aren't one of my favorite bands yet, not because I don't believe they will be, but because what these records have earned from me isn't capitulation or acclaim, it's presence. No banners yet. Parades? Maybe when Hollis is older. For now, just pay attention. If you want to give them a gift, give them more silence to fill. There's nobody into whose care I'd rather silence be entrusted.