Album of the Week: Low, 'Hey What'

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Low, 'Hey What'
Low, 'Hey What' (Sub Pop Records)
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Days like these aren't easily encapsulated in audio form. Days like these can sound like police helicopters slicing through the sky, melting polar icecaps rumbling into the ocean, COVID-related sensory data loss, feedback loops speeding up inside our skulls, or just one day bleeding into the next. Using a largely synthetic backdrop, Low's Hey What captures days like these with plenty of jarring turns and awkward pauses, but also outpourings of humanity cutting through. It is not an easy listen, but it's a satisfying and truthful one.

Days like these, of course, get their moment on the album's banger of a single "Days Like These." The focus darts between a wall of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's interwoven voices and some guitar-like riffing that gets overloaded, overblown, and overwhelmed. Like much of the record, the song creates the sensation that something essential is broken, or maybe that the whole system's broken.

Following 2018's equally bracing Double Negative, Hey What is the Duluth-based band's 13th studio album and the third full-length collaboration with producer BJ Burton (Bon Iver, Charli XCX). For nearly three decades, principals Parker and Sparhawk have successfully implemented a whole record collection worth of rock styles, dynamics, and tempos. Along the way, they've interpreted everything from the Bible to Rihanna with their riveting vocal interplay. Hey What carries these torches and sparks brand new ones.

Even with very few direct ties to organic instruments — most guitar, piano, or percussion is heavily processed or distorted — the arrangements can still flow and swell like there's a string section or pipe organ in the mix. And amid all the album's rough edges, there is beauty to behold. "Don't Walk Away" is a slow, forlorn song — a "Can't Help Falling Out of Love" moment — that leaves a lump in one's throat. "I Can Wait" pulls the listener even closer. It builds up a catchy, complex bed of post-rock noise behind the vocals, and then strips it all away to leave Parker and Sparhawk harmonizing while repeating "my mistake."

The best lyrics here could either be interpreted as Low holding the mirror up to each other, or to all of us. Deep listens yield discoveries of clever jokes, heartfelt odes, or turns of phrase a David Lynch character might find inside a fortune cookie. One just in time for our "cancel culture" moment: "But either side you're on / you get what you deserve" on the album's dramatic finale, "The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)."

Judging by the enduring strength of Low's back catalog, even when the days like these turn to days like something else entirely, Hey What will still feel resonant. It's a dense, durable collection of moments and moods — some fleeting and some that trace an arc over multiple songs. It's both a reminder of the world's harsh realities, but also that there is hope.

External Link

Low - official site

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  • Interview: Low's Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker on 'Hey What' Speaking on the band's goal to always expand their creative range, Low's Alan Sparhawk made sure to credit producer BJ Burton, "He's very interested in finding the outer reaches of the sonic possibilities and we're interested in finding the outer reaches of what a song and singing and sound can be."

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  • Low's Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk
    Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk of Duluth, Minn., band Low. 'Hey What,' released Sept. 10, 2021, on SubPop Records, is Low's 13th full-length release in 27 years, and their third with producer BJ Burton. (Nathan Keay)