BEST OF 2013: 10. Low – The Invisible Way

There are few voices at large in music today as striking, pure and transcendant as that of Low‘s Mimi Parker. Witnessing her singing live is a total surrender: like an act of hypnosis, the performance is so utterly absorbing nothing else exists. In an age of incessant talking at gigs, Low still find themselves playing to hushed reverence. The remarkable control coupled to a voice with such power is a joy to behold on every single listen, and on ‘The Invisible Way’ it is a more regular occurrence than ever before. Parker takes lead on five of these beautiful songs and, while Alan Sparhawk is hardly restricted by concrete tonsils, it’s perhaps the main reason to celebrate Low’s tenth studio release.

The fact the band have such a distinctive sound, largely as a result of those two captivating voices, can mean they get taken for granted a little. ‘The Invisible Way’ promos were sent out  a little over a year ago and by this stage in the run up to last Christmas, I was just getting to know its many charms. And then some bastard leaked it. As the big day dawned, the music of a band hardly rolling in cash was being eagerly downloaded for free across the world. This is hardly new behaviour, but what was really grim viewing was the explosion of ‘me me me’ posts across message boards and Twitter as people rushed to be the first to offer an ill-informed and largely foetal opinion of this subtly textured record. Before 2013 had even begun, dozens upon dozens of listeners had tossed aside an album with which they had spent forty, or even at a push eighty, minutes. “Bit samey” was the preferred epithet of these musical fidgets. I mention this because, looking back in recent weeks, I was conscious of the fact that I had let it drift into the background somewhat in a way ‘C’Mon’ never did and never has. Partly, I suspect, this was down to never getting a quiet vinyl copy and partly it was as a result of having had early access during the end of last year. As I wrote in 2011’s list, that last record was a particularly special discovery for me and I carried all of those emotions and attachments into my response to ‘The Invisible Way’. I loved it. Nothing sparkled quite like ‘Try To Sleep’, but these songs are certainly on a par with that album as a whole.

Returning to it as part of finalising this list, it was like finding a favourite item of clothing you’d somehow forgotten ever buying. I’ve been playing it a lot in recent weeks and it is a less plush album that its predecessor, but no less affecting. ‘Plastic Cup’ gets things underway, uncoiling wonderfully to a chiming middle eight with soaring backing vocals and glistening guitar, while the lyrics play their own games come the end of the song. The metronomic ‘Amethyst’ is a classic Sparhawk/Parker duet, with sparse piano, acoustic guitar high up in the mix and elongated vowel sounds aplenty. The cascading, enveloping piano rush at the start of ‘So Blue’ is irresistible, giving way to a quite remarkable performance from Parker, supporting herself with a delicate back-up to the truly magical main vocal. It is, quite sincerely, one of the finest things the band have ever recorded and fills the room and your thoughts with ease.

I’ve already alluded to the wonders of the track ‘Holy Ghost’ when writing about Mavis Staples‘One True Vine’, upon which a cover of it features. That album was produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who also took the helm for this record, coaxing out a fulsome soundstage for this most delicately minimalist of bands. He hasn’t built in unnecessary layers to add heft, but has managed to present their music in a rich, warm fashion that may surprise those who have previously struggled to fully engage with Low’s work. Take the pulsing drums of ‘Clarence White’, for example. They are foregrounded but not aggressive at the song’s start, but they seem to almost fall in line when the chorus appears, taking their place within a rich but simple collection of sounds.

The piano/Parker pairing is used to great effect across ‘The Invisible Way’, ‘Four Score’ a far more muted track than ‘So Blue’ but still serving to demonstrate the true majesty of Mimi’s voice, something which is also at the centre of  ‘Just Make It Stop’. It almost shimmies along, fidgety percussion driving forth a glorious tune and pushing Parker at a pace that is far less common for her but no less effective. Sparkhawk returns for the lullaby-like ‘Mother’, which offers some personal reflections amongst more hopeful tones, and ‘On My Own’ which skips into view before taking a far darker turn around the two minute mark. Fuzzed chords descend and the song starts to unravel, Sparhawk’s guitar feeling like a weapon being used to hack away at the track, while pretty piano continues resolutely unbowed. The repeated refrain of “Happy Birthday” over the track’s final minute seems withering and insincere, leaving a tense air at its climax, only for ‘To Our Knees’ to pop up and make you cry.

A delicately simple backdrop supports another stirring Parker vocal for a song which looks at how love can endure and withstand whatever life throws at it. It is a beautiful end to a genuinely beautiful album. I got married in the summer and we gave all of the guests a compilation of songs for each year of our relationship so far. Each track represented something significant from a given time and, for 2013, we chose ‘To Our Knees’, reflecting the shared joy of witnessing Low at The Trinity in Bristol this April. It seemed a fitting way to close that collection, just as it so perfectly rounds out ‘The Invisible Way’.

Looking back over what I’ve just written, it now seems a little odd that his record is only at Number Ten in this list. Perhaps I’ll reflect on that in the near future and figure I got it wrong. Suffice to say, what really matters here is that if anyone is reading this having not heard the record, you should rectify that immediately. Low are a very special band who make very special music and I am thrilled that they are able to provoke so much in me. Long may that continue.

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