Secret Meeting score: 87
by Philip Moss
Over the last decade, the dream pop genre has been one of the most naturally evolving movements in alternative music. But after two minutes of stuttering noise on Quorum, the opening track of Low’s twelfth album, Double Negative, the first semi-audible words break through the pulsating ripples – ‘I’m tired of seeing things… what are you waiting for?’ – and it seems Low have taken the dream pop blueprint, chewed it up and spat it out as something far more intentionally ugly.
Main man and multi-instrumentalist, Alan Sparhawk told The Wire magazine, “There are negative things going on, and we’re reacting negatively.” But in that negativity are flourishes of something totally fresh and new. Where some groups move from guitar based music and tinker with electronics, this follows on from 2015’s Ones and Sixes, and would be classed as full immersion. Sculpted with producer, BJ Burton, at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studios, it takes much more emphasised steps into the oblique than his work on last year’s Bon Iver’s record, 22, A Million, did.
It is hard to see how the record would lend itself to the modern ‘streamer’. Underneath Mimi Parker’s sickly sweet, eighties’ melody on Fly, there’s a soundscape that ebbs and flows at its own pace, and it could only make sense in the context of the piece as a whole; this is a record that has been so agonisingly crafted to be consumed as one, that its contents would make very little sense amongst a playlist of other contemporary acts.
Tempest features the robotic vocoder that Justin Vernon has made his own over the last decade, but different to the sugary processing that adorns his Bon Iver and Big Red Machine records, the voice here is twisted, skewed and grating – as if it is flooding at half speed through an electrical storm. This before the choral release which gives way to an understated symphony of muted synthesisers.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the most immediately satisfying run of songs is the final four, which bring the Double Negative to its conclusion, when the lyrics become more easily decipherable. First, Dancing And Fire is gentler, yet somehow more dramatic for it, as Sparhawk dispiritedly lets out- ‘It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope’. Poor Sucker’s fluttering of strings adds light to its muddy soundscape – and almost enters sing-a-long territory with its repetitive, trippy mantra – ‘It’s a long way back, that’s a price you gotta pay’ – but again continues the theme: feeling more hopeless than hopeful. Rome (Always In The Dark) evokes Sigur Ros’ obliquely dense masterpiece, Kveikur, with pounding, distorted drums that are seemingly stuck in quicksand, but act to pin down Sparhawk’s soaring wails. While finale, Disarray, perhaps saves the best for last and is lyrically most telling – ‘This evil spirit, man, is bringing me down!’ – and is again packed with more overt hook-laden melodies.
Double Negative is very much a metaphor for the modern world – a record that is totally out of time with the commerciality of 2018, yet somehow says so much about it. It’s not an easy listen, but one assumes that is the point. And if you give it time, there’s much beauty to be found.