Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, the married couple behind Low, have kept their band running for nearly 30 years now, which is inspiring considering their message since day one has been, “Everything is falling apart, but hey, we’re in this together.” Few bands have stared into the abyss quite like Low — parsing the frailty of the human condition, testing listeners with glacially slow tempos, encrusting beautiful melodies in sparse textures or dissonance — and no band has done so with the same beatific grace as Low.
The songs on Hey What, the duo’s 13th full-length, sound both heartbreaking and uplifting, often at the same time. The core of the Low experience has always been the way Sparhawk and Parker blend their voices into angelic harmonies, as they sing fragmentary lyrics that conjure everyday struggles and triumphs. While that’s true on Hey What, their vocals cut harder since they don’t flinch at making their most handsome melodies uglier if that’s what it takes to amplify their words.
The lyrics to the album’s lead single, “Days Like These,” feel like they could be diary entries from the past year and a half of pandemic-related anxiety, as the couple sings obliquely about feeling frustrated and stuck, allowing their voices to rise and fall until Sparhawk’s guitar turns to loud static, crushing the melody. The gist is, they’re living in “days like these,” and they’re making do however they can. It all builds to a realization of why they feel stuck — it’s just human nature: “Y’know you’re never gonna feel complete … that’s why we’re living in days like these again” — after which the music falls apart into a misty ether, and they repeat that word “again,” allowing it to float around, reminding themselves that it will happen again. As the music takes over, it’s hard not to feel submerged into another world.
Like their last two albums, the couple teamed with producer BJ Burton (Taylor Swift, Lizzo), who pushes them into artier realms on Hey What with fluttering noise and damaged guitar production, but the rays of sunshine, the moments of musical bliss, arrive more frequently this time, making for a much more engaging album. Hey What is a well-rounded experience from the first track, the gorgeously devastating “White Horses,” to the last, “The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)” and all its tentative hope, with moments in between that ebb and flow with the capriciousness of human emotion. There are echoes from Low’s more traditionally “rock”-focused albums — the ethereality of 1994’s I Could Live in Hope, the shadowplay of 2002’s Trust, the euphony of 2005’s The Great Destroyer — but here, they work better as vestiges so the challenging production can force them into something new. It’s engaging, inspirational, uncomfortable, and terrifying, depending on the minute.
On “I Can Wait,” Sparhawk and Parker harmonize over strobing guitar about making mistakes and feeling afraid of some existential price they must pay, but they make up for it by throwing out a life preserver to anyone listening in: “If I could … I would give you a break, I could carry the weight.” Meanwhile, Sparhawk’s guitar sighs in the background. “Disappearing” pairs the singers’ harmonies with enough shuddering, overdriven static to make any speaker setup sound terrible, “Hey” is all shimmering electronics with dashes of Parker’s Laurie Anderson–style “hey” callouts, and “Don’t Walk Away” could be a Mel Tormé crooner were it not for the murmuring and blurping electronics that buttress the couple’s gorgeous entreaties to save their relationship (“Don’t walk away, I cannot take anymore/Why this game? I cannot play anymore.”) The album’s best song, “More,” features Parker making sense of a life of bitterness (“I should have asked for more than what I got”) over heavy-metal electronics but with “la-la-la” refrains and Sparhawk howling, “aaa-ooooo,” making it more bittersweet than wholly acrimonious. And even though the album is not a concept album, it ends like one.
On “The Price You Pay,” Parker and Sparhawk sing, “I know what they want, to forget the hurt/But either side you’re on, you get what you deserve,” and the guitars, orchestral strings, and feedback build tension as the song creeps on. “I know it sounds absurd,” they sing, before the track coagulates into an eerie, horror-movie dance-rock soundscape that lasts a few minutes. But before the whole thing feels uncanny, the music falls away and the couple sing, “It must be wearing off,” as if they’d been experiencing the side effects of some experimental narcotic for the past 46 minutes. The song doesn’t even end in a traditional way, it just stops, mid-noise — the dream is done and anyone eavesdropping will be making sense of the Hey What for far longer than they listened to it. This is Low’s victory.