Back in the 1990s, we used to know what to expect from Low. The songs would be slow, delicate and tinged with a spiritual ache. Then came the changes — strings, fuzz-tones, rhythms faster than an old man’s walk. The pace of transformation accelerated on the Minnesotans’ last two albums, where loops, electronics and grimy textures matched the destruction-haunted horror of the songs. The Great Destroyer and Drums and Guns sound like Neil Young had he tried to realize Rust Never Sleeps with Bowie and Eno in Berlin.
C’mon reminds me of another Neil Young album: Harvest Moon. Not that it sounds like Young’s return to Nashville — it doesn’t — but it does seem like a self-conscious return to a style the band once seemed anxious to escape. C’mon is the first Low record in a while with songs that sound like those ’90s recordings. All of the sonic experimentation has been stripped out, and in its place is a sound that is at once spare, big and ethereal. It was recorded in a church, and the space around Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s harmonies is so vast that it sounds like the engineer let their voices fly a few circuits around the rafters before snagging ’em with the microphone. Parker’s snare drum, tom and cymbal (she still doesn’t use a sit-down kit), which were nearly supplanted by programmed beats on 2007’s Drums and Guns, keep a patient tempo. New bassist Steve Garrington’s playing is so understated you barely know he’s there, and his keyboard tones bolster the song structures rather than abrade them. Sparhawk’s guitar drops the effects-laden flickers he played last time around in favor of straightforward, often acoustic strumming. One can almost imagine the meeting where they agreed that it’s time to let the freaky stuff take a rest and give the people what they want.
Drums and Guns never directly addressed America’s wars, but violence had rendered its characters soul-sick. C’mon is all about what comes after. The guy in “Witches” does his best to seem big and bad by waving around a baseball bat, but it’s all for show, and the sooner he figures it out, the happier his kids will be. And if the wandering pilgrim in “Done” isn’t quite ready to go home, he knows he’s headed that way soon. Parker might insist that she doesn’t want to be the clown for some skyclad emperor, but she also puts her hand out with the invitation to “Come on in, the water’s fine.” It wouldn’t be a Low record without plenty of unease, but the soothing, uplifting music works at cross purposes to the lyrics. Shit may have happened to the people on this record, but they’re not only still standing, they’re walking in the same direction.
Neil Young may once have sung about the virtues of burning out rather than fading away, but he’s still kicking 30 years after uttering those words. Sparhawk and Parker have likewise pulled back from the brink, put their heads down and kept going.