There was surprise upon hearing Low’s 12th album – last year’s superb ‘Double Negative’ – that a band now a quarter of a century old could sound as vital as the Duluth, Minnesota trio did across the record’s 12 songs. Not that anyone ever doubted their ability; there are few groups that dwell within the crate marked ‘alt. rock’ who have had a career quite as consistently interesting as theirs since 1994 debut ‘I Could Live In Hope’.
Of all the places we were looking for the record that would encapsulate the horror of the modern age, few would have predicated it would come from three people mumbling into microphones, in the snowy wastes of the American Midwest.
If there was surprise about where that record came from, there was perhaps trepidation about how ‘Double Negative’s’ songs would be received live. Low’s songs have always been understated, skeletal, faint. And yet this time around they came so drenched in static – often sounding like they were being played on a turntable littered with detritus – that it was often impossible to determine what the instruments making the music even were.
At the Barbican Theatre in the City of London, tonight’s best example of this is a mid-set performance of the song ‘Tempest’, which, like most of the record it’s pulled from, sounds like the sort of song a band plugged into a broken world would write. Somewhere within the song you can hear beauty, but it’s layered with so much fuzz and confusion that it’s much easier to hear a mess rather than something spiritual fighting to escape. Even the old songs are given new meaning when sequenced among the new. Taken from that 1994 debut, ‘Lazy’ is the definition of an old song, and yet if that one sounds newly punch-drunk and sorrowful, ‘Especially Me’ (from 2011’s ‘C’mon’) sounds scared.
When ‘Do You Know How To Waltz’ (from 1996’s ‘The Curtain Hits The Cast’) descends into the atonal mayhem which ends the piece, it sounds utterly terrifying. These are songs for cruel and uncertain times. Political in sound as much as sentiment. How they’d sound live is perhaps the only thing we shouldn’t have been worrying about.
And yet we’re not done. Just a few songs before closing, new song ‘Fly’ – sung primarily by drummer Mimi Parker, the song’s sparse atmospherics provided by husband and guitarist Alan Sparhawk, bassist Steve Garrington’s deep notes stopping the whole thing from falling in on itself – there remains a nod to another reason why Low remain so cherished after so long. It’s disarmingly joyous; a song uncharacteristically hopefully for one plucked from ‘Double Negative’.
And as the sold-out Barbican crowd look on quiet and entranced, it’s a reminder that while we might look to Low to understand the ugliness of this phase of history in which we currently reside, we look to them also to instil the world with the sort of beauty that we’ve been so sorely deprived of.