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Low, ‘The Invisible Way’ (Sub Pop)

Low / Photo by Zoran Orlic
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: March 19, 2013
Label: Sub Pop

This year marks Low’s 20th anniversary and The Invisible Way is the trio’s 10th album. But honestly, did they ever seem young? Maybe it was their married couplehood, or the Mormon faith they quietly but never ostentatiously affirmed, but even in the mid-’90s, bandleaders Alan and Mimi Sparhawk seemed like fully formed adults in an alt-world of kids who loathed the idea of growing up.

Or maybe, probably mostly, it was their music: austere and slow, quiet and sincere, where most everything else “indie” and “rock” was excessive and loud, sweaty and bitingly ironic. Alan’s brilliantly economical guitar, Mimi’s powerful voice, the intimacy of their harmonies, tempos so glacial you might fall asleep standing up at one of their shows: All of it screamed (or mumbled): “MATURE STUFF FOUND HERE.” For 20 years, their music has been consistent, if slightly evolving: a glacier that melts and refreezes.

So it’s a little odd to hear Alan sing about growing up on Invisible opener “Plastic Cup” — he’s always sounded like he was already there. “You could always count on your friends to get you high, that’s right / You could always count on the ‘rents to get you by, you could fly,” go the opening lines. But it turns out the cup in question has to be peed in, though he imagines it being unearthed by archaeologists years hence: “This must be the cup the king held every night!” With time, facts get distorted: Get it?

Then again, Low have made some shifts along the way: Longtime bassist (and wonderful cartoonist) Zak Sally split in 2005 after The Great Destroyer, still the band’s most bombastic effort (Robert Plant covered two songs from it, if that tells you anything). And here, thanks to guest producer Jeff Tweedy, the invisible (or virtually absent) piece is electric guitar, replaced by loads of piano and acoustic guitar. Country music, or an idea of it, is another somewhat visible bit: “Clarence White” memorializes the Byrds’ country-era axeman, “Holy Ghost” keeps Mimi hanging on, and the excellent “Just Make It Stop” is almost country-pop, or Low’s idea of it.

Speaking of change, hello, Mimi Sparhawk, who sings lead on five of these 11 songs instead of her usual one or two, and it is glorious to behold: The album’s highlights belong to her. The bracingly beautiful “So Blue” starts with ascending piano chords before her voice, doubled to create her own harmonies, takes over — marvel at the tiny shifts when she sings, “And into the air we take the chance / Can no longer bear / To miss the dance / With you.”

An electric blowout doesn’t come until near the end, when “On My Own” seizes and slows as Alan’s distorted guitar roars to life: “Happy birthday / Happy birthday / Happy birthday / Happy birthday,” he sings over and over. Time, of course, is the real invisible way. Happy birthday, Low. Long may you stand around.