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The Great Destroyer
Sub Pop

It appears to be the season for artistic shifts and changes in direction, what with Conor Oberst's recent foray into electronica and the new …Trail of Dead opus. Joining them in the departure lounge is the latest album from Low, which is likely to provoke similarly polarized listener reactions of delight and despair.

I recall the experience of seeing Low live as sometimes a bit frustrating — a struggle unfolds between the band's music and audience noise level, and the irreverent realities of the venue challenge the transcendental properties of Low's sparse musical arrangements and harmonizing vocals. Well, here the songs on The Great Destroyer provide their own solution, because, consistently, the band throws some altogether tougher shapes and embraces a lean rock aesthetic. Audience chatter isn't going to be much of a match for these songs.

On one level, this is the sound of Low getting angry, channeling a frustration with America's rightward cultural and political shift into songs where a sense of bitterness and resignation is palpable. Though often elliptical, the lyrics here are shot through with a sense of despair, dread and angry futility. Part of this band's original charm was how it seemed to be semi-detached from any easily classifiable cultural context. Now, however, The Great Destroyer seems agonizingly apt for the times — when Alan Sparhawk sings "Every day you torture us, you torture us, you torture us/ Nothing stays together" on "Everybody's Song," it resonates acutely. The overall gloom of this lyrical prognosis, however, is ultimately tempered by a calmer viewpoint, an abstract spirituality that more boldly makes itself felt towards the album's close.

The opening synth tone and low-level riff of "Monkey" combine to provide a tautly dynamic structure upon which the unmistakable vocal harmonies of Sparhawk and Mimi Parker build. It's not so much about volume itself as the promise of volume, a perpetuated state of tense readiness. It sounds dark, lyrics heavy with threat: "Tonight you will be mine/ Tonight the monkey dies." "California" follows, sparking up with a propulsive riff that's almost shockingly conventional, but again the song is given a more idiosyncratic shading by the accompanying harmony vocals. Completing the opening salvo is "Everybody's Song"; with its shredded rhythm guitar and a relentless tom-tom beat, it confirms the shift in outlook, building on the first two tracks' momentum and breaking the music wide open.

"Silver Rider" confirms that they even sound "louder" on the gentler songs, with a crackling current of harnessed electric energy simmering beneath a lilting country-rock melody. Again the change isn't so much from turning up the volume as it is in the willingness to embrace more generic song forms — sometimes The Great Destroyer almost sounds like a collection of obscure covers as the band navigates through different musical styles. And "Silver Rider" also exemplifies the particular sense of pessimism that permeates this album, expounding on the failure of some kind of savior — "Nobody dreamed you'd save the world" — and ending with the refrain "Sometimes your voice is not enough."

"On the Edge of" and "Step" both sound torn and frayed, layered with distorted, Crazy Horse-style guitar. The hushed, gentle harmonies reveal lyrics concerned with a kind of existential dread, a fear of obliteration, apocalypse. Contrastingly, "Just Stand Back" and "Broadway (So Many People)" highlight a poppier sensibility, combining melodic boldness with a haunting lyrical undertow. "When I Go Deaf" brazenly knits the band's past and present together, with its stark, spacious beginning eventually exploding into a spiraling, noisy guitar climax. The closing resignation of the lyrics, however, at least offers a kind of metaphor of redemptive calm: "When I go deaf/ I won't even mind/ I'll be all right/ I'll be just fine."

Low's use of noise, and its filling in of the spaces that used to hover around the band's exquisitely fragile songs, is a marked departure, but here it sounds somehow inevitable. They still retain a unique identity even as they plunder and explore more generic alt-rock themes, and their particular skill is in making this transformation seem logical and welcome. But while the shift in musical arrangement is towards one kind of openness, of increased access to Low's world, at the same time The Great Destroyer's songs touch on darkness and rage, reflecting the outer turmoil of the world even as the world is being beckoned in. "Death of a Salesman" is a narrative about the struggle to produce art in this outside world, and while its protagonist gives in to the pressures of daily life — "I burnt my guitar in a rage" — ultimately there's redemption: "But the fire came to rest/ In your white velvet breast/ So somehow I just know that it's safe."

Low manage to transform themselves and our expectations of them as they transmit messages of light ringed by darkness. Whatever spirituality lingers here, it's digestible because of its abstracted realism. "Walk Into the Sea" closes the album with the lines, "Yeah, time's the great destroyer/ Leaves every child a bastard/ But when it finally takes us over/ I hope we float away together."

by Tom Ridge

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