Things We Find in the Snow
409 · 28 November 02
I have just, this very moment, learned two important things about Low, or rather, one important thing about Low and one about me. Or, more precisely, I learned these two important things last year, but have just now realized it. Things We Lost in the Fire came out last February, and I kept it around for months, week after week not writing about it, because although it was clear to me that it was exactly what I wanted from a next Low album, somehow it wasn't quite sinking in as deeply as I felt it ought to. But eventually I came to terms with it. And then, because this is how my overextended life with music basically operates, I wrote about it and put it aside. I wrote about it in May, and although I didn't literally not play it again until I started making top-ten-list drafts in December, that's more or less the emotional effect. And obviously it had to be in the list, but in the first few drafts it was towards the bottom. Seventh, eighth, even ninth at one point as I shuffled other things around. It was the top of the list that was giving me trouble, not the bottom, so I still didn't pay it much attention. The top of the list was giving me so much trouble, though, that I started assessing some radical options, and so pulled out Things We Lost in the Fire again to evaluate the admittedly remote possibility that the rest of it paled sufficiently, compared to "Dinosaur Act", that it shouldn't be on the list at all. On a cold winter day, with the year almost over, I listened carefully to an album I hadn't listened carefully to since the summer.
It was quite astonishing. I'm sure the temperature helped a little, as Low are by nature unmistakably a band of frigid climes and snow-besieged hearths, but mostly it was my frame of mind, returning to the album after months of fizzier music for context, trying to summon closure and renewal again. This second time around, the album completely engulfed me. "Dinosaur Act" was still part of it, but finally an album song more than a single. I moved Runrig and Low up to one and two, and knew the list was starting to make sense.
And I probably would just have said that I temporarily misunderstood myself, but the same pattern has recurred this year, with only insignificantly different timing. Trust came out in September, and I played it obsessively for a while, with exactly the same perplexing mixture of intellectual contentment and a gnawingly elusive sense of incompleteness. This time, instead of calendar months, it was Tori that intervened, and for a few weeks nothing other than Scarlet's Walk really got my whole attention. Emotional logic suggested segueing to Shania Twain next, but my import copy of Up! with the blue "World" disc hasn't come in the mail yet, so this became Low's turn by elimination. It's the day before Thanksgiving as I write, and somehow overnight four inches of snow has materialized outside my window. Another year is edging into its endgame, arguably the first one since 1998 for which a focal point hasn't essentially been defined for us. And Low are still, and again, astonishing. Apparently I need this, at least the leaving and the returning, and maybe also the winter.
But that's the thing I've learned about me. The thing I've learned about Low is that they are one of rock music's few true Minimalists. I've said this before, but not understood it fully until now. The lowercase version of "minimalism", as an adjective referring to any sort of deliberate constraining of any parameters, comes up fairly commonly, but simplified arrangements in and of themselves are no more Minimal than a pencil sketch for a Norman Rockwell painting. The secret of Minimalism, at least at the oversimplified level sufficient for analogical application to popular music, is that it was primarily a manipulation of ideas about art, rather than of paint or materials. Minimalism in the classical arts was not an exercise in producing the same result using fewer or simpler tools, it was a redefinition of what constituted an end-product. In a sense, of course, all art movements are assertions about the borders of the nature of art, but Minimalism is one of the most striking because it so clearly dispenses (or seems to dispense) with technique, and thus (ostensibly) with personal character. All the pre-modern art styles were difficult, and even many of the modern ones that don't depend so much on dexterity or acuity still require diligence. People may mutter "I could do that" while looking at a Jackson Pollock painting, but a) it would take them a while, and b) at some point during the while they'd discover that it's not so easy after all. But Black Quadrilateral and White on White, anybody really could execute, especially if we stipulate (albeit incorrectly) that canvas, canvas preparation and gallery display are not parts of the artwork itself, and therefore allow people to use PowerPoint and copier paper. Malevich (technically a Suprematist, not a Minimalist, but anywhere outside of an art-history exam it's OK to conflate the two) had technical skills, but these paintings effectively exist as ideas more than as objects. By the end of the century Dan Flavin could line up eight normal fluorescent lights on the floor of an empty room at the Sackler and call it an "installation".
Music, not having an obvious representational/abstract distinction, is harder to transgress against in the same way. There are Ambient and Noise, of course, and John Cage's silence and Lou Reed's feedback, but those fall outside of many people's definitions of music. Creating noises that are discernibly Minimal, but demonstrably music, is extremely tricky. And even in Low's case, especially if you come to them now, their Minimalism is easier to appreciate live than on record. It helps, most of all, to see Mimi drum. If she broke an arm, you could step in. Hell, if she broke an arm it probably wouldn't make any difference, and if she lost an arm I still think they could just duct-tape the second mallet to a hip. Alan and Zak can play their instruments, but anybody with enough hand-eye coordination and pitch-recognition to tune a stringed instrument is probably no more than a few lessons and a small amount of practice away from the necessary virtuosity for most Low songs. Even Alan and Mimi's singing, which would be very difficult for anybody else to replicate, is overwhelmingly a product of what happens to be the combined timbre of their voices, and they deliberately eschew the usual manifestations of trained vocal technique (although admittedly this too is quite a bit harder than it sounds). And between fragmented thoughts and frequent repetition, there are surprisingly few words, and when you extract them from the music and write them down, they very nearly disappear. The difference between Low and even the artists I think of as most similar is palpably obvious when you see them on a double-bill: Eitzel is a storyteller and a poet, Ida are harmonists and historians.
But for me, nobody but Low comes anywhere close to combining these simple elements into sounds and patterns this mesmerizing. Their career has been one of the most coherently evolutionary in all of music, I contend, and this is the fourth album in a row for which I'd fretted that there might be no direction left to go, but they find one. Trust begins, in fact, with probably their most audacious gesture not involving Christmas music, a song about one of human civilization's most elemental songs, "Amazing Grace". "(That's How You Sing) Amazing Grace", Low call it. Steve Albini, who recorded Secret Name and Things We Lost in the Fire, isn't around for this one, but Tom Herbers, who assisted on Things We Lost in the Fire, has learned enough to take over, and the first track is a production tour de force all by itself. Room ambience is elevated to the level of a scored part, Mimi's kettle drum is muted down to nearly a piano-pedal release and her snare is plate-reverbed into a small explosion, some unspecified things creaks and whir ominously through the whole song. Every once in a while, somebody taps a chime. And, lest anybody ever foolishly accuse Alan and Mimi of letting their personal religious beliefs undermine their ability to write intense confrontations of spiritual issues, they do it again here, disassembling the song's entire selfless-piety premise. "It sounds like razors in my ears". "Sometimes there's nothing left to save". They don't explicitly spell out every critique they intend, but to me the prayerful delivery of this skepticism amounts to an apostasy even more disconcerting, for its overriding sense of dismayed regret, than Slayer's far less nuanced rage.
And my contention that Low are a rock band hasn't always been uncontroversial, but there shouldn't be much debate after "Canada". Mimi launches into an exuberant stomp (somehow still performed, in concert, in a largely statuarial fashion), Zak grinds out violent one- and two-note bass lines, Alan adds a little extra guitar cacophony, and the lyrics never try very hard to explain what stuff it is you can't take to Canada, nor precisely what you would be hoping to accomplish if you tried. And while you're still reeling from that, "Candy Girl" (a rock and roll title, for once), retreats to almost the other extreme, Mimi's drum a monastic boom, Zak's bass pulsing meditatively, Alan's guitar spectral and pinched, an offhand X Files allusion completely unexplained. "Time Is the Diamond" is a compromise of sorts, Zak and Mimi's parts done with the usual discipline but Alan flailing at his guitar and vocals with evident unease. "Got a weak pair of lungs / From a childhood disease". These are the characters that flit by in Low songs, ghosts brushing against curtains, their pains and longings somehow present even in their contours.
The album's first lullaby, a lost form of which Low are rare modern adepts, finally arrives with "Tonight". Background noises again threaten to take over, and Mimi's soothing voice still holds hints of horror ("Memories still lie / Tonight, / Faces of the day / Pressed up to your spine"), but I stand by my opinion that a child raised on these will be strong enough for anything. "The Lamb", next, is the anti-lullaby, Alan and Mimi's voices fading off into the background in places, strange cracking noises emanating from corners of the room. "They'll take my name, / And feed my children / With my remains / In the holy temple", Alan seethes, and Mimi's drums pound, slowly but mercilessly, like the slamming of cathedral doors, and I only wish I could tell whether they're being slammed to keep evil out or in. And just when things are on the verge of turning harrowing, they bring in some friends to add organ, accordion and banjo to the bleak and obliquely folky "In the Drugs", which really does seem to be a drug lament of some sort, albeit one less nurturing or admonitory than just grimly satisfied that the drugs were finally revealed as useless. And the rumbling "Last Snowstorm of the Year", martial drums evoking "The Little Drummer Boy", is one of rock's vanishingly few songs that dread the coming of summer.
Low's songs are almost never depressing, at least to me, but they can still be very dark, and I think the darkest one on Trust is "John Prine". I feel certain that there is a reason this song is called "John Prine", but I don't know what it is, and wasn't able to persuade the internet to tell me, so I'm left with a sketchy narrative I take (interpolating madly) to be a scarred chronicle of having lost a spouse to cancer and trying to raise their children without her. "All alone I raise this child", I hear Beth Nielsen Chapman promising in "Sand and Water", and although her version was devout, to an atheist the promise of an eventual afterlife is just a clumsy way of phrasing the willingness to persevere through great pain. The idea that Alan and Mimi are Mormons turns out to have been an extremely clever bit of meta-information to overlay on their songs, quite independent of what extent to which it's accurate, but even without it I think these songs would maintain the bulk of their ambiguities. Except "Little Argument With Myself", maybe, wouldn't work the same if we didn't think we knew who won the argument: " Just keep counting the stars / Like someday you'll find out / Just how many there are / And we all can go home, / 'Cause there's nothing as sad / As a man on his back counting stars. / I want to believe, / 'Cause there's nothing as sad / As a man on his back counting stars." That's the whole song, and its import hinges on whether you take the stars to represent religious faith, secular science, or one masquerading as the other.
And while you're pondering that, Trust gathers itself for the concluding triptych. "La La La Song", quite possibly the eeriest clap-along anthem ever recorded, is so simultaneously searing and affectionate that I wonder, for a moment, how affection could ever be effectively couched in anything but deep insight into a person's essential flaws. Murmuring cello, dry piano and more background rustle pace the breathily fragile "Point of Disguise", and I suspect "I had in my sight / Lack of vision" was not intended to remind me of Tom Scholz's "I had in my music / 'Forget those days'", but that's my decision, not theirs. And although the fluttery noise-loops in "Shots & Ladders" are a new touch, the rest of the song is as definitive an evocation of Low's aesthetic as anything they've done, slowly undulating music under another perfect Alan-and-Mimi duet. "They want to keep you for more tests", they explain in unison, a single repeated pair of pitches for the first seven syllables, one lower for the eighth. Except Alan steps down just a fraction of a second before Mimi, for once. They resync immediately, and finish the song as one voice again, but in this tiniest hesitation they are suddenly two individual people, to me, for maybe the first time, and all the moments in which they've seemed like a single complex presence are abruptly thrown into a deeper perspective. I have fallen into the habit of thinking of Low as an inherent singularity, when in fact that coherence is anything but inherent, and may be one of their most impressive achievements. Calling them romantic probably reveals a worryingly analytical conception of romance, as well as unfairly glossing over Zak's role in the band, but if you abstract romance just a little bit, remembering that Romanticism was once an art movement, too, you can take it as the capacity for groups of human beings to act, however briefly, as unified souls, and you then have a way to say not only that Low are one of the most distinctive bands in rock history, but that the three members have collectively repudiated one of the central tenets of Minimalism from within. A single line or color was supposed to be pure and self-contained, and of course it never really was, since we can never quite see the line without seeing that it was drawn by a hand, however arbitrarily chosen, but still, the line is provocative in its imagined abstraction. Three hands drawing one line, though, produce the same abstraction without even pretending to sacrifice humanity. Low argue, to me, that abstraction and humanity were never opposites to begin with, and in fact can't even be disentangled in meaningful theory. We are never more human than when we fail, plaintively, to transcend ourselves, nor do we ever transcend ourselves more profoundly than when we try. We had in our music as much blood as syntax, and always have. We have in our music ourselves.