Soldiers. Little babies. Poets. Pretty people. According to Low’s Alan Sparhawk, you’re all gonna die. It’s a pretty foreboding way to open his band’s eighth full-length, some prophecy to make. The Duluth, Minnesota band’s been around for fourteen years, so I suppose it can make lofty lyrical claims as such. The band’s also allowed to change its formula and keep fans guessing, which it’s done yet again on Drums and Guns. The sound is still layered and textured, and those gut-achingly gorgeous seamless harmonies between Sparhawk and wife Mimi Parker are still there. The band just really seems to like drum machines and loops these days.
When I was in graduate school studying popular music, I dealt with intertexutuality, the academic term for songs that sound like parts of other ones you’ve already heard. (Academics always come up with theories/terminology for simple statements like, “Hey, doesn’t this sound like blah blah blah?”) And on Drums and Guns, Low has a few intertextual moments: “Always Fade” is a veritable rework of Bjork’s “Human Behaviour” (those drum and bass patterns!) and the version of “Murderer” that is so deeply arresting here actually shares some bits with “Joga” from Homogenic and Primal Scream’s “Keep Your Dreams” from EXTRMNTR (2000). This is not to say it’s an overt game of Name That Tune; it just contains striking juxtapositions of similar textures and tones. And the beauty of intertexutality is that the similarities don’t have to be intentional. If the listener hears them, the relationship is there. Even if the person sitting next to you thinks you’re nuts. (This might be the only “valuable” thing I learned in grad school, come to think of it.)
Drums and Guns is quite paradoxical at points. The more upbeat tracks seem to have the most dire lyrical content. It’s a semiotic conundrum. “Breaker” is underpinned by soul claps, and you can kind of nod your head to it, and you may find yourself humming along to lines like “Blood just spills and spills.” Hand claps and killing? Makes you think, or makes you shrug your shoulders. You choose.
There’s lots of blood, lots of dying, and lots of guns here. So you would think a track called “Hatchet” would keep with the sordid themes. But rather it’s a terrible jaunty track about burying said hatchet, like the Beatles and Stones with Yoko Ono and Marianne Faithfull. It comes mid-album and is incredibly jarring, tripping up the plaintive and resigned tone of most of the other tracks. In fact, Drums and Guns would hang together so much better without this little hiccup. But by the time the last few songs (especially the sublime double shot of “Murderer” and closer “Violent Days”), this subpar song is a distant memory.
“Breaker” video: http://www.chairkickers.com/video/Low_Breaker.mov