Chances are if you’re a Mundane Sounds reader, you already know about Low, but I’ll give you some basics just in case. Low are a Minnesotan trio fronted by guitarist/singer Alan Sparhawk and his wife, drummer/singer Mimi. Their repertoire consists almost exclusively of songs that are slow, sparse, quiet, and pretty, and because of such they have been regarded as pioneers of a subgenre of independent rock music called “slow-core,” which has been used to describe bands as diverse as Ida, Arab Strap, Codeine, and Red House Painters. Low is also one of a growing number of bands in independent rock that actively practices Christianity (even while on tour, Alan and Mimi observe the Sabbath), yet manages to weave their faith into their music without being dogmatic or heavy-handed. Over the past eight years, Low have slowly become one of the most consistent and inspiring bands in all of rock. Their seventh album of original material, Things We Lost in the Fire, managed to usurp even Guided by Voices’ Isolation Drills as my favorite album of 2001. In my musical pantheon, GBV are a very hard band to overtake, but Low managed to do it. Without letting this review turn into an autobiography, I will say that I developed a personal connection to the record, as it helped me cope with a difficult period in my life. Most importantly, Things We Lost in the Fire was one of those rare albums that managed to be solid from beginning to end, its all-around excellence preventing any one song from standing out above the rest. Trust, this year’s addition to Low’s discography, falls a bit short on that regard, but the fact that it even approaches their previous album’s greatness should constitute a strong enough endorsement.
From the first few minutes of Trust’s opener, “(That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace,” the listener will realize that Low’s sound has undergone a bit of change. The Spartan production of Things We Lost in the Fire, which was “recorded” by Steve Albini, has been replaced with the lush, polychromatic production of Tchad Blake. The basic tracks of Trust were recorded in a church, which explains why the instruments seem to be soaked in reverb. In spite of this, the production remains crisp enough that multiple layers of sound can be heard with attentive headphone listening. Mimi’s drums are miked so closely that her snare sounds like a gunshot, and you can hear the creaking noises of the metal hardware as she plays her kit. Alan’s slightly overdriven guitar wavers in and out of tune as he plays carefully chosen notes to evoke an atmosphere of desolation, of which the sprightly glockenspiel playing ends up being the only form of musical relief. The lyrics detail the aftermath of a young girl’s suicide; she drowns herself in a lake for unspecified reasons. The lyric “I was once lost but now I’m found” is transformed from a testimony of salvation to a resigned lament, as it is followed by the words, “Sometimes there’s nothing left to save.” This song establishes Trust’s overriding theme: the never-ending conflict between optimism and pessimism.
“Canada,” the second song, is a surprising change of pace for Low because of its brisk beat and scratchy, distorted guitars. I didn’t know the band had it in them to make a song I could actually pogo to! Fortunately, the band doesn’t sound out of its element when speeding up the tempo. The protagonist of this song confronts a friend whose lies have been exposed. Draft-dodging is used as a metaphor for the inability of said friend’s lies to protect him any longer: “I used to have a golden tongue/But now the words just feel like stones/’Cause you can’t take that stuff to Canada/You can’t take it anywhere.” Trust would be the equal of Things We Lost in the Fire were it not for the inclusion of “Candy Girl,” which coasts on two chords, an ominous tom-tom beat, and lyrics that are obtuse to the point of sounding like an in-joke. Things pick back up quickly with the acoustic front-porch meditation “Diamond,” which asserts that the average human being just isn’t strong enough to survive without the help of others. The protagonist of this song realizes this, but when he sings “Well, alright,” it sounds more like a sigh of resignation than a willing acceptance of the truth.
“Tonight” is a hymn of expectancy that would be completely overtaken by the constant whirring backwards one-note drone were it not for the prominence of Mimi’s vocals and Zak Sally’s bass in the mix. The lyrics of “I Am the Lamb” read like the famous last words of a man about to be sacrificed to the slaughter, possibly Jesus Himself. The drums clack at a pace that imitates the protagonist’s hesitant footsteps as he approaches his inevitable doom. Atonal guitar scraping, off-key piano meanderings and three-part harmonies are buried in the back of the mix to heighten the tension. Alan sings on “In the Drugs” of the mellowing effects of age, supported by a wistful backdrop of banjo and melodica. “The Last Snowstorm of the Year” is a fuzz-drenched waltz that’s even faster than “Canada” and ruminates on how silly it is to fear the future, yet let nostalgia sugarcoat the horrors of the past. “John Prine” revisits the watery sound world of Trust’s opening track, and in this song Alan sings of how the hope of youth gets beaten down by the disappointments of life, and is eventually transformed into anger: “I thought I was a poet/I had so much to say/But now I want to see blood/I want to make them pay.”
If I had to pinpoint the one song on Trust that perfectly encapsulates the lyrical tension between optimism and pessimism, it would be the appropriately named “Little Argument with Myself.” The protagonist lay flat on his back counting stars, hoping that he’ll eventually find out how many there are in the sky. He wavers between
feeling that there are too many stars in the sky, thus rendering his activities pointless, and feeling that despite this, he may actually get his answer if he perseveres long enough. It is a testament to Low’s lyrical ingenuity, as well as my own verbosity, that the words to this song are probably shorter than my explanation of them. “La La La Song” undermines itself with the triviality of its self-explanatory title. Yes, the chorus does consist entirely of “la la la” ad infinitum, but underneath this deceptively simple façade lies a sweet ode to a person who carries the weight of the
world on his/her shoulders: “When you come down from your death-defying labors/I’ll still be in love with you,” coo Alan and Mimi to each other at the song’s end. “Point of Disgust” employs a piano part that’s almost as simple as “Chopsticks,” but its lyrical message is decidedly more complex: it is necessary to move on with one’s life, Mimi seems to say, even when one is unfathomably angry about his/her current situation.
Trust ends with “Shots and Ladders,” a condescending tribute to a ne’er-do-well who ignores the criticism of his peers, and keeps trying even when the odds are against him: “You’re always such a disaster/But all you hear is laughter.” The traditional rock instrumentation is slowly usurped by the same wind-tunnel sound effects that so characterized “Tonight,” as well as various strings and keyboards. The song ends shortly before it reaches the eight-minute mark, and every time I listen to it, I feel as I’ve reached the conclusion of a long and overwhelming emotional journey. If there’s any possible way that one’s ears can feel jetlagged, the coda of “Shots and Ladders” can manage it. “Candy Girl” notwithstanding, Trust is astoundingly effective at getting its points across. This album, like every other Low release, milks each note, beat, and word for all of its emotional worth; even with Blake’s florid production, nothing sounds extraneous or unnecessary. To make an extremely corny pun on the album’s title, I trust this band to deliver sheer excellence every time they put an album out, and Trust does almost nothing to break this...um, trust.