Low – ‘Ones And Sixes’

Minnesotan rock stalwarts return with a divisive and lavish effort

As long as Minnesota’s minimal rock institution Low can continue making albums, there will surely be people eager to buy them. ‘Ones And Sixes’ is their eleventh in just over two decades, during which time they’ve weathered some personal turmoil but have become a widely-admired part of American indie’s furniture. The challenge, then, is to maintain their essence without merely revising past glories.

Low’s glacially slow, sparsely arranged music has been tended to by several producers over the years – most recently Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, on 2013’s largely successful ‘The Invisible Way’. This time, they decamped to the Wisconsin studio of Justin ‘Bon Iver’ Vernon, and if that sets alarm bells ringing, rest assured he isn’t involved. There’s a greater emphasis on keyboards and electronics than before, though: the crunching percussive motif of ‘The Innocents’ could be called industrial if it were pushed higher in the mix – as it is, a typically gorgeous lead vocal by Mimi Parker dominates – and ‘Lies’ is rickety synthpop, somewhere between Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and The Postal Service.

Some of the aesthetic choices on ‘Ones and Sixes’ may prove divisive – even more guitar-driven, obviously ‘Low-like’ songs such as ‘Spanish Translation’ and the long, intense stormcloud of ‘Landslide’ are more lavish and buffed-up than past efforts. In terms of songwriting, arrangement and atmospheric prowess, though, they remain capable of wonder. ‘No Comprende’, sung by Parker’s husband Alan Sparhawk, is almost suffocating in its patient, desultory rundown of domestic squabbles (“Before you start to make assumptions / Let’s try to cut to a solution”) – wholly un-rock’n’roll, but that’s partly what Low are loved for.

An unassuming highlight arrives mid-album: ‘What Part Of Me’, in which Sparhawk pleads for clemency with an unnamed adversary (it could be his wife, his lengthy struggle with depression, or neither of these). One of those Low songs that’s nothing special on paper, a languid strum with a few hooks and a one-line chorus is turned precious and elemental by the band’s alchemy. Even if ‘Ones And Sixes’ doesn’t end up the proverbial fan favourite, it maintains Low’s status as a reliably moving creative partnership.