Slow and Steady Wins the Arms Race

As Low's Matt Linvingston averts his eyes, Alan Sparhawk looks for meaning in the hair of wife Mimi Parker

As Low's Matt Linvingston averts his eyes, Alan Sparhawk looks for meaning in the hair of wife Mimi Parker

Drums and Guns
Sub Pop Records

Drums and Guns is about as impersonal as a political album can get. In that sense, it's a clever response to the dizzying melodrama that followed Low's pivotal 2005 disc, The Great Destroyer. Released on indie-powerhouse Sub Pop Records, The Great Destroyer was a commercial breakthrough that attracted national attention. But the spotlight revealed a band in turmoil—they canceled the second leg of their tour, guitarist/vocalist Alan Sparhawk revealed his self-described "mental instability," and longtime bassist Zak Sally quit the group. It was strange territory for such a quiet band, even if their whisper-and-lurch approach always conjured high drama.

Soon after Sally's departure, the band welcomed multi-instrumentalist Matt Livingston aboard, but Low performances were infrequent. Sparhawk focused a great deal of energy on his other projects—the Black Eyed Snakes, Retribution Gospel Choir (of which Livingston is also a member), his solo guitar record, and the Chairkicker's Union Music record label. Yet Drums and Guns has rewarded that two-year wait with a remarkable musical document that openly questions and convincingly postulates the band's aesthetic identity.

I spoke to the band at Uptown's Cafe Barbette after tagging along to witness a chilling rendition of their new material performed at Radio K studios. A strange tension emanated from Sparhawk all morning; though perfectly calm, he wore the stern wince of a troubled genius. The band played stripped-down, droned-out versions of their songs, with Sparhawk running his guitar and sampler through a single amp; Livingston milking sustain on an elegiac, gray, wooden World War I-era Naval pump organ; and the quietly personable Mimi Parker keeping pace with her stripped kit and ethereal harmonies.

Ideas related to military violence pop up all over Drums and Guns; the very first line, hard-panned over a languid, backward guitar drone, declares, "All the soldiers are all going to die." The video for "Breaker" is a single real-time shot of Sparhawk in soldier drag struggling to wolf down a large chocolate cake. Sparhawk claims, "I can't deny that there are recurring themes—things dealing with the frustrations of the social state of war, modern man, and our tendency to wreck everything around us and hurt each other. But we didn't set out to make a record that was a political or moral statement."

To no great surprise, Drums and Guns also avoids overt discussion of internal conflicts. Commenting on the months leading up to Sally's departure, Sparhawk recalls, "I wasn't really aware of what was going on. I was real sick, in the hospital and recovering. It was pretty obvious at the time that I was not going to be very communicative."

Musically, Drums and Guns does feel like the band has an agenda. Sparhawk admits, "This time, half reluctantly, half cautiously, we asked, 'What is Low?' A lot of that was Dave [Fridman, producer] pushing us, telling us to 'keep experimenting.'"

Presented mostly as if The Great Destroyer never happened (dig that irony!), their latest album finds Low forgoing rock for elements of electronica, augmenting their brooding with samples, loops, a lulling prominence of organ, and flickering wisps of reversed guitar feedback. It's an album full of dichotomy (hinted at most obviously by the hard-panned drums and vocals) with seemingly concrete issues ambiguous enough to pose as both universal and particular. Abstracting political statements as well as personal turmoil, Low persevere with Drums and Guns by concerning themselves more with the state of the world than with the state of one relatively small and quiet band from Duluth.