Unbelievably HEY WHAT is the thirteenth full-length release from Low in just under 30 years but what’s more unbelievable is how they can create an album that is fresh and sharp as a newly cast cutthroat razor.
Low create a musical equivalent of Batman’s nemesis Two-Face, one side is made up of the exquisite which oscillates against the other side; a kaleidoscope of sounds that can challenge the ear, often stretching sounds to their breaking point. A case-in-point is the opening track ‘White Horses’ which starts with a sound like someone manipulating a reel to reel filtered through a distortion pedal. Cut-up sounds form a scuffed backbeat and while your brain is trying to take all this in the beautiful vocal harmonies of Low founders Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker drop in over the top giving the impression of a pebble skimming across a sea of nails.
‘I Can Wait’ and ‘All Night’ offer the same honey on gravel feeling but then comes ‘Disappearing’ which, to me, is the North Star of the album. It warps sound and uses the kind of blown out phrases you get when you send everything into the red on a mixing desk. I was taken aback the first time I heard it and it reminded me of the story of Igor Stravinsky’s avant-garde ballet ‘The Rite of Spring’ which caused a riot at its first performance but was subsequently hailed as triumph in a performance a year later. The agitation it caused amongst the audience may have its roots in the brain’s initial failure to make sense of dissonance from something it has not heard before (this is discussed in the excellent Radiolab podcast ‘Sound As Touch’). Every time I listened to ‘Disappearing’ my brain was less shocked and I felt I could peel back the ‘primal energy’ it generated and, instead of getting my ears burned, I could appreciate the glorious warmth that holds the track together.
Even on the more oasis-like tracks ‘Hey’ and ‘Days Like These’, tremulous sounds have sandpaper applied as they scrape against washes of synthesised choirs. ‘There’s a Comma After Still’ judders, ‘Don’t Walk Away’ is a series of backwards loops that seem to be trying to reverse the lyrical plea not to walk away, ‘More’ has the feel of a 90s power-ballad run through a blender and final track ‘The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)’ is a final slice of sweet and sour which sees soaring vocals get drowned out by a middle section that sounds like an underwater orchestral being repeatedly hit by an industrial press.
HEY WHAT is beautiful, challenging and exhilarating, and listening to it seemed to resonate with me on a cellular level. At the end of the album, you feel as if you have taken a sonic shower or stood on a mountain when it’s blowing a gale. It’s as if Low built their studio around a supermassive black hole and harnessed its power and I think it’s is one of the most impressive albums I have heard in 2021.
Review by Paul F Cook