There was a time, not so long ago, when Alan Sparhawk, eccentric lead singer of Low, talked of being sick of the idea of “Low,” and the aesthetic confines that go with that name. The glacial tempos, the quiet volumes, the people sitting down at the concerts, the everything. Not coincidentally, Sparhawk’s difficulties with being in Low happened around when he had a nervous breakdown, and Low issued their loudest (and most hated) LP, 2005’s The Great Destroyer. The band took a turn for the rock on that one, but slightly course-corrected in time for 2007’s Drums and Guns, as Sparhawk was increasingly able to work out his noisier side in Retribution Gospel Choir.
That transition back into the quiet, graceful Low continues with C’mon, Low’s third album for Sub Pop and ninth overall. The huge, Dave Fridmann production on Destroyer and the busy electronics of Drums and Guns are replaced with empty space, weary hymns, and production so quiet it would hardly alarm even the most judicious librarian. The phrase “return-to-form late-period album” is always overused (see: every R.E.M. album since 1997), but in this case, it’s appropriate: After a few years of much-earned creative recklessness that didn’t always yield the best results, Low are back keeping the slowcore movement alive, one crawling ballad at a time.
The band aren’t quite through with the different sounds, though: C’mon sets sail with “Try to Sleep,” “You See Everything” and “Witches,” three tracks that imagine what Low would sound like if they went adult contemporary, becoming the only indie-rock band that could be big-upped by Delilah. But then “$20” kicks in, and for the rest of the album, you’re reminded why Low were able to jump from small indies to Sub Pop: There are fringes of menace, but this is some of the most austerely beautiful music in indie right now, from Sparhawk’s broken croon, to Mimi Parker’s harmonies, to the hardly there guitar melodies.
If you would have picked which one of the first wave slowcore bands you’d expect to stay relevant for 20 years, Low might not have been high on the list. They’re from the edge of the earth (Duluth, Minn.), they’ve settled into domesticity (Sparhawk and Parker’s kids guest on a track here), and they still haven’t had anything close to resembling a mainstream breakthrough. But here Low are, still going strong, still this consistent, still delivering vital albums like C’mon.