The Great Destroyer, Low's seventh full-length, poses a
recurring but no less crucial question: Can a band with a long legacy
built on the strength of a distinct musical identity change course
successfully? Is it possible to spend a decade molding a sound as
recognizable as Jack White's squeal, pull a dramatic U-turn, and still
retain enough of a definable personality that fans and critics won't
throw their drinks in your face? I imagine Alan Sparhawk, Low's
guitarist and vocalist, probably wouldn't give a shit - an attitude that, more than anything else, would help pull off such a drastic facelift.
An equally interesting question is how much these sonic shifts
have anything to do with changing labels. Suffice it to say that the
trio left Chicago's Kranky Records after three releases, nearly lost
its bass player, signed to Seattle's monarchical Sup Pop Records, and
somehow ended up with an album chock-full of standard-rock tempos and
big, hairy guitar. Ragged tunes such as "Monkey" and "On the Edge Of"
wouldn't generally pass for "standard" compared to the funeral-marches
and whispered acoustics of previous efforts (most notably 1996's When the Curtain Hits the Cast), but The Great Destroyer
is a raging bull. In his first time working with the band, producer
Dave Fridmann has helped construct an album of considerable dynamic
weight - an attribute that isn't always flattering for a band with a history of mouse-sized dirges and breathless harmonies.
Still, does it work? Yes and no. It is admirable, and
in one sense completely understandable, for three people (two of whom,
Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker, are married; they have two children)
to decide after ten years that some good ol' distortion might enliven
the process a bit and make the next ten at Sub Pop worthwhile. The Great Destroyer is full of these little revelations - moments
when Sparhawk's guitar suddenly transforms a fairly typical Low tune
into a fairly gorgeous blast of shoegaze glory. In this vein, "When I
Go Deaf" and "Pissing" are some of the best songs this Duluth trio has
But nearly as much of the album, though perfectly decent indie-rock, is
really no more than that. There's an unmistakable early-'90s nostalgia
that runs through The Great Destroyer's
duller moments, a curious fact given how much of Low's formative years
were spent silently, but no less forcibly, bucking that flannelled
trend. Rockers such as "Everybody's Song" and "Silver Rider," both of
which recall "Canada" from 2002's Trust, bury Sparhawk's and
Parker's infallible harmonies in a wash of middle-of-the-road crunch.
Tellingly, it's when Low paces itself, letting Sparhawk's Tele comment
on the proceedings instead of crushing them, that the new effort lives
up to the back catalog.
A worthy experiment? Sure. A great record? No. Much of the The Great Destroyer
left me missing the band I knew or remembering why I bought Low's
previous records. And when Low did get it right on the album, it left
me wondering who I was listening to in the first place.
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