A Lifetime Of Temporary Relief: 10 Years Of B-Sides And Rarities
o matter what you think the aim(s) of music criticism are, box sets provide a challenge. If you regard music criticism as being merely in the service of acquisition, a glorified buyer’s guide, you’re faced with the fact that box sets are simply not aimed at the casual consumer. The fans are not going to read the review, in all likelihood, before getting the box. And no-one else cares. And of course if you think writing about music has any loftier intentions, you’re still left with the same problem; the standard format for reviews is either albums or, increasingly, songs, and the box set is very different. It’s a whole new structural and aesthetic challenge.
And then a box set like this one comes along, where a fan (like myself) hears it and is convinced that non-fans should hear (and see) it too. Part of this is just my devotion speaking, of course: On recent albums like Things We Lost In The Fire and Trust the band has deliberately thawed a little, but there’s still an almost liturgical quality to much of their work. The focus for much of Low’s decade long existence has been on repetition, quiet and harmony, and if you’re going to get them at all you might as well get them for three discs worth.
As such, those of us who have already fallen under the trio’s spell have a lot to drown in here–they start you off with a ten minute demo of “Lullabye” and don’t let up from there. There’s a host of demos and alternate versions here (the best of which is a Mimi Parker-sung “I Remember”), giving stretches the feel of ghosts and dreams, of half-remembered conversations and deju vu.
It’s also very thorough; with the exception of “Standby” (which is a great song anyway) nothing here appears on any of their albums issued on CD or the in print Songs For A Dead Pilot, Transmission and Christmas EPs. But pretty much everything else they’ve ever released is, making this a vital mopping-up. There’s some middling stuff but no real stinkers, and a handful of diamonds in the rough (“Venus”, “Tomorrow One”, “Joan Of Arc”). And then there are the covers.
Low are one of those acts that, because they have such a grasp of their sound, give good cover. Some of the selections here are arguably better than the originals (the Bee Gees’ “I Started A Joke”, a stunning rendition of the Smiths’ “Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me”), some are great versions of great songs (Wire’s “Heartbeat”, Soul Coughing’s “Blue Eyed Devil”, Pink Floyd’s “Fearless”) and a couple are just goofy; anyone who thinks of Low as po-faced or overly serious should hear Alan Sparhawk warbling his best Steve Perry impersonation through Journey’s “Open Arms”.
And the humanization of Low is why I wish more skeptics would grab this box. The DVD that comes with it has all of their music videos, which are about what you’d expect (except for “Canada”, which is hilarious, especially when customs finds a giant plastic penis in the band’s van) but the documentary “Closer Than That” is a revelation. Yes, the band is 2/3rds Mormon and they often reference Christianity in their lyrics and themes, and their music does often has a certain crystalline impenetrability to it, but there’s a reason people fall in love with that sound. And there’s a reason people like myself who have never been to church still feel comfortable with them.
Both the band’s fans and their detractors tend to build Low up into something they’re not, but what the film does is reestablish the three as human beings. When Alan says that he and non-Mormon bassist Zak Sally get the same thing out of the music but have different names for it, he’s not being particularly profound; but it’s something that can stand to be restated. In the age of unparalleled religious fanaticism, a reminder that there are thoughtful people of faith out there that are willing to admit that they don’t have all the answers (which Alan specifically does) is a welcome one. There is something at the core of Low’s music which is impossible to describe, you merely have to play the doubter “Violence” or “Over The Ocean” or “Weight Of Water” or what have you one more time. But that thing is open to interpretation; the religious often connect it with God, the atheistic choose other definitions.
There’s a reason Low are known as a band who often write about Christian issues, but not as a Christian band. They’re not recruiting, they’re searching. Once you begin looking at the issues raised in Low’s music as questions asked and not dogmas received, the band opens up and you can focus on the gorgeousness of music without any guilt.
I was a huge fan of Low before A Lifetime Of Temporary Relief, but the perspective it casts both by amassing so much of their beautiful music and by casting new light on the people who make it make this box set utterly essential.