With 2013’s The Invisible Way, Low took a step away from the jittery, tense electronics that had characterized its recent output, embracing a warmer, organic sound, full of pianos and acoustic guitars. It was a welcome departure, making up for what it lacked in consistency with a passionate intimacy. For the group’s follow-up, they’ve incorporated some of those organic elements and fed them into the churning electronic wheelhouse that dominated 2007’s Drums And Guns. The results are haunting, though occasionally plodding.
Low has never strayed too far from its formula, even as its sound has evolved. A simple start, built with a spare drum beat and sporadically brushed instruments, joined by a simple vocal melody that eventually twitches and distends into a drawn-out refrain, until finally building at the end, only to return to sparse silence. The band’s 2000s output was marked by a diverse and wide-ranging exploration of the various tools that could be implemented in carrying out these pure melodies. On this album, synthesizers and drum machines dominate, even as they’re married to the live drums and more traditional Low-esque guitars that accompany them. Sonically, it feels like a mashup of the last few albums.
Tone-wise, however, the record is mostly consistent, and it’s an uneasy one. Lyrics about accusation, combativeness, paranoia, and loss echo across the tracks, creating an eerie, oppressive atmosphere. Most of the songs begin with a slow, pulsing beat, sometimes glitchy, sometimes thudding, often paired to a quavering synth or billowy keyboard note. But the melodies contained within tend toward too much of the same. A basic, temperate lament of a vocal line (often pairing Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker) in the verse eventually gets dragged out into a single vowel or two in the refrain, repeated, and then again, until a coda employs Parker’s dynamite voice, often reducing it to an echoing background sound. The recipe continues throughout numerous songs, to diminishing effect, even as the overall mood is consistently affecting. The worried and uncomfortable whole is greater than the sum of its sometimes monotonous parts.
This being Low, the standouts among all this repetition are still excellent. The best tracks rise above the stress and persecution vibe to deliver moments of hopeful beauty, poppy hooks, or grandiose flourishes. “Into You” is lovely and rich, with an almost sonnet-like lyrical elegance delivered by Parker with a graceful verve. “Lies,” a song about confronting someone who can’t stop dissembling, matches its pulsing bass drum rhythm with Sparhawk and Parker’s flawless harmonizing. “What Part Of Me” is a high point of pop bravado, one of the only truly hopeful-sounding moments. “Landslide” hearkens all the way back to The Curtain Hits The Cast with its spare, austere beginning—all restrained composition and reverberating vocals, right until the moment it spirals into both a wall of sound and a minimalist hush, one then the other.
Ultimately, the spirit animal of this record is a menacing throb, the synthetic pulse of an artificial heartbeat that veers unevenly throughout Ones And Sixes. It’s an impressive record, but a difficult one. “All you innocents, make a run for it,” call out Sparhawk and Parker in “The Innocents,” and it sounds less like a warning than a threat.