My image of Duluth, Minn. is of a cold, desolate land blanketed with snow, without a soul in sight. For over a decade, Low — a trio from Duluth — has provided the soundtrack for this landscape with their lethargic tempos, dreamy melodies, and gentle harmonies. On “The Great Destroyer,” the band’s seventh release, they take a big step outside of the sleepiness they’ve become known for. Though not a typical rock record by any means, “Destroyer” is decidedly optimistic and much less esoteric than older albums like 2001’s ultra-soft “Things We Lost in the Fire.” The change betrays their so-called slow-core roots — indeed long-term fans will be disappointed — but it’s a change for the best: “Destoyer” is the Duluth band transitioning into something wonderful.
Despite the underlying differences, the new album has much of the same drawn-out notes and noise for which the band is known. The first track begins with a shrill electronic chord that lasts for 20 long seconds before the vocals come in. Low’s two guitars are mostly subdued — though when they’re abrasive, it works — and John Nichols’ bass expertly hums the floating melodies. There always seems to be life in the background from a slight buzz from the bass or the guitar’s echoing reverb. The drums fit perfectly into this mixture, accenting where necessary but never overpowering the rest of the band.
The vocals on “Destroyer” are exquisite. The lead singer, Alan Sparhawk, is a calm leader through the album’s 13 audio pastures while Mimi Parker, the drummer, softly echoes the lyrics in high harmony. The combination of male and female voices creates a subtle softness that is a defining feature of the band’s sound. The sublime pairing enhances the group’s placid soundscapes and quietly usurps the listener’s attention from the sedated guitar and rhythm.
The album departs in several different directions. Some songs, like “California” (which sounds like “Bends”-era Radiohead) or the wall-of-sound “Monkey,” wouldn’t sound out of place on a typical indie-rock record. Others, like the sedate “Silver Rider,” hint at the band’s previous work but stop short of fully embracing it.
The aforementioned “Monkey” is the opener. The growling synthesizers that it’s built around sound cheap and careless, especially in comparison to the multi-layered textures of their better work. Though it’s a bad choice to begin the album, the track is almost saved by Parker’s ethereal harmonies. The only worse song is “California,” the second track. Beginning with an abrupt transition from “Monkey,” the song is disappointingly generic.
But that’s an exception. In “Just Stand Back,” the band again turns to a typical structure, but the result is much more interesting. The track sounds more folksy than anything, with an electric slide guitar that gives the song a slight twang. Sparhawk ironically croons, “It’s a hit, it’s got soul/ Steal the show with your rock ‘n’ roll,” accepting that the band has deviated from its origins but reveling in it all the same.
“Everybody’s Song,” in contrast, features copious reverb and distorted drums. The vocals are never lost in the mix, however, and the result is tortured and beautiful. Breaking from the guitar-bass-drums formula, “Cue the Strings” features nothing but strings, ironically, until vocals are layered on top, with light electronic percussion sprinkled in. Lyrically beautiful, the song floats along for three and a half minutes before dying gently away.
The second half of the album is much stronger than the first. The sound is much cleaner on every track (with the sole exception of “Walk Into the Sea,” the closer.) “Death of a Salesman,” a simple guitar ballad, is one of the best tracks on the record, for its stunningly haunting tone. Sparhawk’s vocals are mellow and direct and coupled with his sparse guitar they paint a desolate picture of the undoing of an aspiring musician. It is true throughout their career and on “Destroyer” that Low’s best songs are often their most delicate ones.
All told, the album is a solid offering from a solid group, one with the strength to speed into something new. There are a few missteps, especially due of overproduction, and at its worst, the album falls into the pool of indie-rock bands writing sad songs with slow rock rhythms. But way more often then not, “Destroyer” achieves a dreaminess that is unlike most music being made today.