It must be a challenge to promote an album that recalibrates your artistic ethos on a galactic scale. How do you give people the let out when the final product is a 48 minute experience that sounds like all your previous material melted down and remixed into oblivion? How do you make something that takes digestion and then give it a single?
Part of what made Kendrick Lamar’s “i,” and in turn the rest of To Pimp A Butterfly, so brilliant is that Lamar gave us hints of the new world he was building, but then on that tune in particular he completely shattered it on the record itself with a new “live recording” and gave us the tour de force to go with it. For Blonde, Frank Ocean practically gave us a whole ambient record to let us know where he was headed; and then of course Beyonce told us she was going to New Orleans without giving a hint of what she had to say about Jay-Z and black womanhood on the rest of the album.
“Double Negative” was advertised with the first trio of tracks on the album, a three-part suite that does a decent job of summarizing the sounds used on the record–from the opening burst of distortion on “Quorum” to the out-in-open-territory, high vocal croon of “Fly”–but fails to give the listener enough to fully grasp and hold onto. That’s probably a good thing as listeners can go “what the fuck” but not get bored, and when the record does finally come up on First Listen they’re a little prepared to allow themselves to be taken on the full journey of the work. All this to say that the best thing to do with this album is listen to it all the way through, swim in this new world, and get use to the most overt rework of rock music this year.
In some sense Low has retained the dark, sparse energy that has always made their slow songs glow, but here the atmosphere is in a state of erosion, never allowing the listener to gain a sense of stability or location. There’s the surface level feeling of “I don’t know what thing is making what sound” as guitars are left by the wayside, but the song-forms are also wandering and surprising, never feeling locked into any particular location. Clouds dissipate to clear skies and return unexpectedly; beauty and horror both occupy every moment; the “leader” can be a singer, a yawning distant electronic croon, or a violent texture right on the ear drums.
Maybe in some sense the rhythmic feel is more constant than some of Low’s previous material, but the meter is impossible to truly gauge. “Dancing and Blood” is underpinned by a prodding electronic quarter-note device, but the last 90 seconds are a sound collage of moody darkness. Closer “Disarray” feels like it’s moving, but what is moving it other than pulsing waves of sound?
Lyrically, the album is just as abstract, but very much connected to the political shit-show of today, drawing on hopelessness, confusion, and grief. There’s the obvious terror of “Dancing and Fire:” “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope,” but even in moments of beauty, such as “Fly,” there’s the sense that what we were told about the way the world, and late-capitalism, works is a pipe dream, the future is impossibly dark and disturbing: “I thought we had it made up/After all, we had to pay up…But I don’t know/And I don’t mind/Leave my weary bones and fly.” The sentiment of “violent political era leads to great protest music” is gross and comes from a place of privilege. Low is almost a response to that, suggesting that the world has been turned upside down, and there’s no fixing it.
On the whole, Low have brilliantly dismantled everything they could. “Double Negative” is sure to go down as one of the year’s best rock records and has raised the bar of what is expected of veteran musical acts.