Low, The Great Destroyer
For the last decade, Duluth, Minn., trio Low has spearheaded the development of a new sound in the world of indie rock, most commonly referred to as “slow-core.” Listen to any of the band’s seven previous records (especially 2002’s Trust, which pushes the formula to its natural limits), and you’ll know what is meant by slow-core: rock whittled down to prehistoric basics, set to glacial tempos. The genre as defined by Low is haunting, ethereal and gorgeously sad. But 10 years of tearful snail-symphonies would wear on anyone, so it is with great relief (for the band itself and its open-minded fans) that the new Low record is decidedly faster, livelier and—dare I say it—more mainstream.
OK, so mainstream isn’t the right word, but different is. The Great Destroyer finds Low on the uber-hip label Sub Pop (the band previously favored Chicago indie label Kranky) with producer Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips). The result is an album that sounds a lot more guitar-pop than sloth-rock. Not that it’s an overly produced corporate sellout; the album still retains the Low intimacy and innocence that so endears them to fans. It’s still the original three (Mimi Sparks on drums, Alan Sparhawk on guitar, Zak Sally on bass) playing in a basement, though with a little more rhythm and noise energy than before.
The album-opener, “Monkey,” buzzes with growling guitar/bass, announcing a more aggressive Low. The angelic vocal harmonies of Sparks and Sparhawk (who are, incidentally, a happily married Mormon couple with children) hide the oblique weirdness of the lyrics (Tonight you will be mine / Tonight the monkey dies), which is common to the majority of the songs on the album. Track two, “California,” jumps headlong into sunny pacific pop, though again, the optimistic tone of the music scarcely reflects the sob-story lyrics: I know it breaks your heart / You had to sell the farm / Nights were just too long / With all your children gone.
And the rest of the album plays out similarly—a dichotomy of happy sounds and sad stories, and sometimes vice versa. The album’s title comes from a story Sparhawk wrote about two characters, the Great Destroyer and the Silver Rider, who battle each other without realizing they are twin brothers. The concept fuels many of the lyrics directly and gives the whole album a sense of warring tension and confused identity. "It's about not having answers,” Sparhawk has said. “It's about having a moment when you realize you're the problem."
The lyrics occasionally reflect this story directly (as in the song “Silver Rider,” which recalls old-school slow-Low), but more broadly are infused with a sense of disappointment, loss and “things fall apart” destruction (hence the “Great Destroyer” motif). Ah, yes: Low at their best. Tracks like “Everybody’s Song” (which repeats the phrase Nothing stays together), “Just Stand Back” (Here comes the knife / You better just stand back / I could turn on you so fast) and “When I Go Deaf” (a climactic opus of sensory resignation) are perfect examples.
The album is a growth for the band, if only in its capacity for diversity. There are several more typically Low tracks (“Cue the Stings” and “Broadway (So Many People)” are pure glacial melancholy) in between harder-edged rock songs like “Step,” which features handclaps, guitar solos and one of the most positive messages on the record: Hey, keep an eye on what you say / You think the words just walk away / But they're creepin' through my brain / Sinkin' deep into my step.
There are repeating images throughout the record, and one is highlighted in the chorus of “Cue the Strings”: Here comes that cold sunrise. That image—of hope and warmth on its way, despite the cold dead of winter, feels authentic on a literal level (the band is from Minnesota) as well as a symbolic one. Low represents a wonderful balance between darkness and light—sadness as a form of happiness. They play music as a way of expressing the innate turmoil in life, if not their lives specifically (see “Death of a Salesman,” which is the “why I sing” manifesto of the album).
The Great Destroyer is an album that breaks down Low’s formula and logically expands on it. With traces of optimism amid the dirges of destruction, Low transcends their former “caricature of morbidly depressed indie rockers” stereotype by becoming something that feels more honest and personal. For those who relish music that affirms their “life sucks” mentality, this album may not be too appealing. Instead of being bitter and morose, Low exudes a peace and hopeful resignation that admits defeat while also affirming the possibility of redemption. It’s all in the last lines of the final track, “Walk into the Sea”: Yeah, time's the great destroyer / Leaves every child a bastard / But when it finally takes us over / I hope we float away together.