The Great Destroyer
By: Eric Greenwood
Low reacts to a three-year silence with its noisiest record to date. Jumping from Kranky to Sub Pop and recruiting Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann, Low definitely shakes things up enough to spark some new interest and, at the very least, a re-evaluation from long-time fans. No, The Great Destroyer is not exactly rocking as some have lazily asserted. The pace still barely catches up to a dying pulse, but things are certainly a hell of a lot louder. The noise fits, even though it defies the band's typically minimalist approach under the direction of such monochromatic engineers as Kramer and Steve Albini.
From the opening notes of "Monkey", it's obvious that Low has injected new life into an old formula. With layers of synthetics and electronic beats, the guitars surge with more texture and impact than ever before. Alan Sparhawk's ominous vocal disposition works under the multi-tracked treatment, sounding almost sinister as he belts out his imaginary doom. The surging indie rock charm of "California" is irresistible. It's easily one of Low's catchiest and best songs of the album, if not its entire career. Sparhawk's and wife Mimi Parker's voices sound inextricably bound, as they blend in understated, always-poignant harmonies.
The band clearly has an eye for a more accessible sound, and it's hard to lay blame. Turning in variations on the same theme for so many years, Low dug itself into a niche that had nowhere to grow. Fridmann's polish is all over the place, only occasionally to the detriment of the music ("Just Stand Back"). For the most part, the squalling feedback, raucous distortion, and flittering electronic effects fill the songs with energy and unforeseen power, as on "Silver Rider." The synthetic underbelly and electronic pulse of "Cue The Strings" serves as a perfect foil to Sparhawk's and Parker's downtrodden harmonies and bizarre lyrics.
Thematically, the album is scatterbrained. In addition to the some of the noisier bits, there are brooding, esoteric dirges like "Broadway (So Many People)", stripped down, storied songs like "Death of a Salesman" that confront mortality, and pretty, hopeful pieces like "Walk Into the Sea." Low sounds fearless in its experimentation. Such personal intimacy juxtaposed with extremely haughty pretension could easily turn off listeners, but it's all woven together so well that it's hard to dismiss even the wrong turns.
The Great Destroyer is Low's most alive and vital album. It's neither it's most beautiful nor it's most affecting, however. And while the aggressive production might put off fans of Low's starker moments, repeating the past is never a wise strategy. Better to forsake those that hold you back than to try to pander. Low's taking a chance here, and while it may backfire in the short term, The Great Destroyer has enough depth and staying power to sustain shallow criticism.