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Alone, Together: Low’s ‘Hey What’ Goes Off The Grid To Find Peace

The voices of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have been a constant presence in my life for the past 25 years, one I often seek out as sanctuary when the newness of new music becomes too overbearing. But, it was only in 2021 that I actually discovered their capacity for shock.

Maybe because I was hearing just their voices as Low introduced their 10th album Hey What — the first minute of “Days Like These” is a cappella, which no one ever does on a lead single. And it’s a complete 180 from the shock tactics of 2018’s Double Negative, which all but eliminated Low as recognizable humans, rendered ghostly under layers of burbling static and bottomless bass. What Double Negative did for Low’s status might have been more shocking than the music itself, earning the duo a newfound and possibly unprecedented bleeding-edge relevancy rather than the polite applause awaiting indie rock bands who have yet to embarrass themselves three decades into their career.

The context of 2018 helped, of course, as Low had stumbled upon the era’s ultimate cheat code. Like pretty much everything released in that year — especially music with a more apocalyptic bent — Double Negative was viewed as a response and perhaps even a protest of Donald Trump, despite having very few legible lyrics. Or, maybe because of that. Lord knows how much popular and instantaneously dated art we got in that year from artists trying to present themselves as the Sound of Our Resistance. So that’s why I was taken aback by how Low was willing to lean into the possibility of voicing a generational anthem — “when you think you’ve seen everything / you’ll find we’re living in days like these.” So many days like these! If anyone wanted to project their anxieties about the Delta variant or the pullout from Afghanistan or whatever else in 2021, “Days Like These” could serve such a purpose. And yet, most shockingly of all, no one took the bait. Whether a refusal to lump Hey What in with The Discourse was a result of narrative exhaustion or just astute criticism, I can’t say — either way, Low might not have made the most 2021 album of 2021, but it’s the one that I believe will sound just as daring and extraordinary five, ten or twenty years from now.

If you’ve ever read a single year-end list, what I’m about to say about the editorial process is not an industry secret: we are all kindly asked to avoid rehashing what a song or album sounds like and focus instead on its relevance, what it had to say about the past year or what it says about us. This is particularly difficult with Hey What (which comes in 9th on the 2021 Uproxx Music Critics Poll) for a few reasons, not the least of which is that it’s the most sonically fascinating album I’ve heard in 2021. I can think of very few, if any, of the countless indie artists who have dutifully namedropped Blonde and/or Yeezus as influences who have managed anything beyond the most superficial resemblance. Oftentimes, Hey What sounds like both, even if Low hardly seems like the type of band who’d point that out. About 95% of Hey What has no percussion at all, and from an act that made a record called Drums And Guns, its absence hovers like a Sword of Damocles that eventually drops after nearly 45 minutes; an unnerving dread rather than narcotized vibe of post-Blonde Feel Good Indie playlists. The mixing and mastering is so aggressively loud that no Hey What song can really fit into any playlist.

I don’t care how many hours Low spent making this album, I’d be fine if they got all Peter Jackson with it and made an eight-hour documentary that showed how they managed to make the guitars on “More” sound like they’re gushing from a fire hydrant only to become completely frozen in air. Or how they stumbled on the magical and maddening chord progression of “All Night.” Or how BJ Burton guided the second half of “Hey” to emulate a disappearance into the k-hole. Or the decision to finally add drums halfway through the last song on the album. Or the untreated guitars that pop up for a few seconds on “Days Like These” and absolutely nowhere else. If you recognize most of the names filling up the mid and lower tiers of mainstream festival posters over the past couple of years, there should be at least a passing familiarity with the mercenary and blatant ripoffs that BJ Burton’s work with James Blake and Bon Iver has inspired. Hey What is too forbidding, too anti-vibe — I can’t quite imagine bands trying to emulate it in any real way.

But more pertinent to the time and task at hand, how does one account for what Low or Hey What say about 2021? They have no peers, no connection to the slowcore subgenre from whence they originally emerged, no real connection to any of the various threads that we’ve fashioned into greater trends. My Indiecast cohost Steven Hyden considered the possibility that 2021 granted us no instant classics, and that may be true. But I also think no album really advocated for that designation, not at least the way we’ve seen over the past half decade – “Love It If We Made It” and “The Greatest” were richly rewarded for doubling as their own preemptive year-end blurbs, stringing together evocative and timestamped phrases that left critics no choice but to gesture broadly and say This Is Us In The Twitter age. None of the albums that swept 2020’s lists could’ve possibly predicted the societal breakdown to come, but the time-tested, singer-songwriter craft of Punisher, Saint Cloud and Fetch The Bolt Cutters provided a salve in otherwise unprecedented times. And unlike in 2015 and 2017, Kendrick Lamar did not make an album.

I could easily bring up how this past year was bookended by panic about the pandemic’s long tail and the cancellation of major sporting events or the debate about whether we’re at the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end. But when I really think back on the best way to invoke the seemingly endless churn of 2021 talking points, how’s this: we’re still living in a year where Donald Trump was the President of the United States for several weeks.

While I enjoy publication year-end lists in a kind of fantasy football way, I get the most value out of individual ones; trying to say What It All Means is an admirable but ultimately futile goal, whereas What It All Meant To Me is unassailable, relatable despite being a wholly individual experience. While 2021 was absolutely not a “back to normal” year, there was enough separation from the experience of 2020 to realize things just couldn’t be put on hold anymore. And so in 2021, my wife and I got a dog. We bought a house. We got married. We were now a true unit in social settings, making crucial small talk about the real estate market in San Diego and pet ownership and retirement funds. These are the experiences we now share with our peers and also the things that fortify our boundaries, set us apart as us, prepare us for a future where couples move because of schools and affordable housing, stop going to shows, stop drinking or really just admit that the pandemic fast-forwarded through most of the processes that split friend groups apart after the age of 35.

Hey What didn’t help me understand or process any of that; “Don’t Walk Away” and “I Can Wait” only vaguely reflected upon Parker and Sparhawk as a couple and I’m pretty sure this first Low album cycle where they talked about their Mormon faith. What Low offered, again, was a kind of sanctuary: Hey What is every bit as abrasive and aggressive as the screamo and metalcore I gravitated towards in 2021, as mesmerizing as any of the ambient jazz that wowed critics and as lyrically transparent as any of the indie pop and R&B that it sits alongside in year-end lists — and it has almost nothing at all to do with any of it, BJ Burton’s uncanny sound manipulation surrounding Sparhawk and Parker with a buzzing, electrical current. Throw any headline or subtrend at Hey What, and it remains simply a reflection of the people who made it — a married couple who were making tentative steps towards reestablishing a connection with the greater community, only to find out that there was so much more to explore at home.