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Low, Hey What (Sub Pop Records, 2021)

“Long Beach freeway, Firestone exit, Southgate.” Not a particularly exciting sentence, but ask someone who watched LA-area television in the 80s to read it out loud and you’ll get a sing-song reply in return. Pete Ellis Dodge ran commercials for years that ended with those words at the bottom of the screen. As the earworm jingle that goes with the words was sung, a little white ball bounced across the syllables.

The ‘follow the bouncing ball’ trope has been around since the 1920s, but a car dealership ad campaign was my introduction to it and that’s what came to mind upon listening to Low’s Hey What. The association was immediate and involuntary. Not because the music sounds anything like an invitation to buy a car, but because the shapeshifting electrostatic pulse that permeates the album became an almost hypnotic focal point of my listening and I spontaneously began to imagine that pulse as a bouncing white ball.

On repeat listening, for whatever reason, the image grew stronger. I saw the ball as the centerpiece of a low-resolution, 2-D digital art piece displayed on a CRT television in an otherwise dark Meow Wolf installation while the album plays on loop. It bounced in place, up and down, following the music, not the syllables. Rarely more in focus than the nap of a new tennis ball, and usually about that size, as the pulse changed form and sound-- whether it was thin, spread out, and heartbeat quiet, or pronounced, compressed, and insistent, or momentarily missing-- so did this mental image.

Hey What starts out with intriguing atmospherics that morph into the album opener, 'White Horses,' which has the kind of undeniable, electrified and fuzzy melody that Low have done so well for years. It is at that point that the ball starts bouncing in my mind, abruptly and against constantly changing background graphics akin to retro screen savers. When the pulse of the music becomes harsh and unaccompanied in the transition from 'White Horses' to 'I Can Wait,' sounding like the scrape of an off-balance exhaust fan against a vent cover, the bouncing ball becomes sharply defined and uncomfortably bright. During 'All Night' and 'Disappearing,' it is flattened and spongy. From 'Hey' through the closing song, 'The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off),' it is gradations of everything from a shadow of itself, conspicuous for being relatively subdued or absent altogether, to staticky, oversized and vibrating.

While not synesthesia, that the music brought forth such a strong and persistent visual seemed worth sharing. I think we've all imagined landscapes and vistas conjured by music. But to have this kind of very small, very specific, and album-long vision is unique in my experience. It's made listening to Hey What a little mind-bending: I can no longer hear it without also seeing it.

Low have put out an impressive series of albums. Their music is compelling because while the sounds they employ are so often artificial, their synthesis of those sounds into songs and collections of songs is distinctly human. Distortion, compression, electronic hums like tonal variations of high voltage power lines: sonics like these would be trite or abrasive in other hands. But Low incorporate this family of effects to make incredible and unique music. Perhaps the difference is that their art is emotionally wide open and underpinned by real musicianship. Hey What is no exception and likely to make many best-of lists this year, including my own.

Robert Hann: 

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