The Great Destroyer
o what extent is a style just a crutch for band, and a crutch for those of us who try to write about them? Now that Low no longer sound like the Low most people know, both fans and critics are denied an easy avenue into thinking/talking about the trio’s work. And The Great Destroyer is every bit the break with tradition that’s been promised; take away the vocals and compare it to Long Division or hell, even Secret Name and you’d be hard pressed to conclude they’re all by the same act.
As a fan, I find I can only really tell you about what this album sounds like with reference to their older material. More recently “Dinosaur Act,” “Canada,” and others saw the long, slow thaw continue, but apparently at some point after Trust the dam broke. Even the slower, calmer songs like “Silver Rider” (which is about the same distance from country-rock as Oneida’s “Wild Horses,” albeit in a near-opposite direction) or “Cue The Strings” (an almost-interpolation of “Will The Night” where Dave Fridmann’s maximalist production style is most keenly felt) are suffused with an energy you just didn’t get with the Low of yore. The closest thing here to their old material is “Pissing”, but even as that erupts into noise that’s not too dissimilar to songs like “Stars Gone Out” there’s this active little piano playing counterpoint. Fridmann probably has something to do with this, of course, but it’s not as if Low just went to him randomly. The Great Destroyer also boasts one of Low’s most minimalist songs of recent vintage, “Death Of A Salesman,” which is just Alan and his acoustic. But whereas that sort of setup before would have resulted in an exercise in control and silence, now it’s almost jaunty.
Low have always had the feeling of being a little insular, a little private; it wasn’t hard to get past this, all you had to do was sit there and listen to their albums with due attention. Then you were “in.” But correctly or not there’s a feeling of openness to most of the material here that they just didn’t have before. It’s not that Low have never been pop before, if a particularly crystalline form of it; it’s that they’ve never been pop in the way they are here on “California,” “Step,” and “Just Stand Back.” And that’s to say nothing of stompers like “Everybody’s Song,” the most immediately thrilling result of Low’s excursions into noise. “Broadway (So Many People)” and “On The Edge Of” both shift back and forth from traditionally pretty harmonies and the new flood of song but “Everybody’s Song” takes the harsh drive of “Canada” and lets the reins go even looser.
Of course, there are drawbacks to go along with the new gains; Mimi Parker still anchors Low with her drumming, and her singing is all over the album, but she never takes lead this time out. There are also plenty of ways in which The Great Destroyer moves towards conventionality; the oblique religious themes and purity of sonic focus that were the most immediately apparent aspects of Low’s sound are completely gone, although only time will tell if they will be reintegrated into their new sound in the future. Whether it was a good idea to make an album that moves so far away from the band’s old strengths is going to be hotly debated, but fans can at least be glad that it worked out so well: Even the lesser tracks here endear themselves upon multiple listens, and the best stuff is uniquely exciting given their context of departure from a well-loved sound. They’ve given us at least five great albums exploring the limits of stillness and simplicity; this is both the right time to move forward and the right way to do it.