I'm a sucker for routine.
Every weekday I follow the exact same pattern of movement. In the mornings I am a Rube Goldberg machine, a series of painstakingly linked activities to reach simple ends, making coffee, drying myself after a shower, so forth. Deviation from this succession of knock-on effects means that I am inevitably late, puts a fluttering sickness in my gut that leaves me shaky, unable to accomplish everyday tasks without great effort.
Without deviation from routine, though, life loses its colour. Day by day some unseen hand pulls down the fader, until you're left with a vast expanse of infinite greys. Low are a band whose sound is well-defined – Alan Sparhawk's wilful pigeonholing of his band is applicable (in one way or another) to any Low record, but nevertheless, the more maximalist moments of The Great Destroyer shouldn't be easily mistaken as coming from Drums and Guns' frozen wasteland. With their constant record-to-record evolutions, Low avoid existing in those endless greyscale plateaus, but never shy away from documenting them with a fearless and unforgiving eye.
And so to The Invisible Way. You'll already know how Duluth's finest have chosen to fuck with their template this time around. Acoustics trumping electrics, Mimi Parker's seraphic vibrato more likely to be found centre stage, heavy use of piano. Exhibit A: third track 'So Blue', which has been doing the rounds for a while now. Those hammered ivories, Mim's tremulous call, intertwined and ascending skyward. These things sound jubilant at first, but the more I've listened to 'So Blue', the more I'm convinced that what I'm feeling isn't joy, no, it's the weightlessness that comes in the vague and hyperreal seconds that bleed into awareness of something painful, the unbelievable heat just before we pull our fingers away from flames.
Songs like this force us to feel alive, wrench us from routine and push colour into white space. And The Invisible Way has these songs, yes, some of the finest songs in Low's two-decade history, if you listen for them. There's opener 'Plastic Cup', a quiet and crushing rumination on humanity's general idiocy in the face of time, its bottomless bass drum rumble and constant strum the ever-ticking seconds. There's the coke-rush strut of 'Clarence White', which drains all fear right out of you, pokes wings from your shoulderblades, a destroying angel on the commute. The flipside being 'Just Make It Stop', in whose four minutes we get all the wretched and cyclical pointlessness of depression, while Sparhawk's guitar, for the first time, threatens to growl. Then there's the bit when Mim breathes "I don't know much, but I can tell when something's wrong… and something's wrong" at the culmination of 'Holy Ghost'. Jesus fuck. These are sad and beautiful and comforting songs of great, great worth.
It would be remiss not to credit producer Jeff Tweedy with some of this. Not for me the mic response diagram as masturbatory aid, but this record sounds incredible. Rich, lustrous, oaky, all those twattish production-as-wine signifiers that get trotted out every time some lit-grad bellsmear pretends to know about sound (ahem). It'd be too easy to say that Tweedy has invested The Invisible Way with some of his day job's twang, though maybe the creak and rustle of the record's many acoustics point to that. What Tweedy has done, though, is create an awesome, wideopen space with the bare minimum of instruments, something that spans the fearsome width of the country that birthed both Low and Wilco and their catholic musical lineage. 'Amethyst' the pinnacle of this, unfolding slow and gentle and impossibly deep, Sparhawk making the notion of time tearing out our eyes sound as inevitable and calm as drifting into sleep.
I am, for better or worse, subject to the vagaries of my own uncontrollable tastes. There is another, more unfortunate sense in which Low buck routine on The Invisible Way. While half the record has my tongue tangling itself up with rampant hyperbole, there is no shortage of lesser songs here. Perhaps you would care to disagree with me when I say that 'Four Score' is plain dull, that for all its unassailable sentiment 'Mother' is schmaltzy and even a bit gross, that 'Waiting' leaves us doing exactly that, while going precisely nowhere. Feel free. It's arguable that these songs suffer from the record's stripped-back aesthetic, that with more volume and layers they might come into their own. For me, it's just a mercy that The Invisible Way's weakest moments are also its shortest.
An album of two sides, then, good and not so. And routine, the prison that we have drawn for ourselves, abides. But late for work and disproportionately perturbed I hear Mim sing "if I could just make it stop, I could tell the whole world to get out of the way," and the source of warmth that lines like this can be should never be underestimated. It is Alan, though, who comes in first for forward motion:
"Maybe you should go out and write your own damn song, and move on."