Hey What demands attention. Low’s musically and contextually shocking 13th album completes Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s reinvention from slow-core duo to electronic industrial marauders. They double down on the bold sonic landscapes of 2018’s Double Negative, this time coupling them with powerful and complete songs, with the vocals up front in the mix.
Low began their reinvention quietly with 2015’s Ones and Sixes. Hints of their old sound still remained, but the first time in years “veteran slowcore band” didn’t quite fit. The ballad heavy, and sonically inspired album, was a refreshing first look at the band’s new direction.
They continued this adventure with Double Negative, as they deepened their relationship with producer BJ Burton—who also assisted with Bon Iver’s electronic reinvention album 22, A Million. On Double Negative, Low abandoned any hint of slow core and indulged in rich buzzing electronic textures that often buried the heavily affected vocals. Songs hummed in and out formlessly, relying heavily on the mesmerizing textures to survive. The raw presentation of these sounds might make Double Negative the most daring album of Low’s new era, but its slippery form also makes it the most frustrating.
Hey What takes the electronics and distortion of Double Negative and gives them monumental form. The bass and synths on the menacing opener “White Horses” create an impressionist stampede that sets the tone for the album’s shocking and gargantuan sonics. Across the album, bass rumbles as deeply as the ocean, and synths grind like circular saws while distortion blurs where one instrument ends and the next one begins.
Cleverly, the band leaves their vocals mostly unaffected. When they do show up, the vocal effects are subtle, like the barely-there distortion on the earnest falsetto of “Hey.” In contrast with Double Negative, which mixed and muddied the vocals into instrumentals, Hey What puts relatively plain voices out in the open, giving a humanizing feel to music that’s otherwise larger-than-life. Neither Sparhawk nor Parker are vocal powerhouses in a conventional sense, but they consistently deliver stirring performances throughout the album. Almost always singing in tight harmonies, they sound united against a backdrop of instrumental chaos.
The album’s most impressive element isn’t just its sound, but the way the band structures their songs. Though Hey What often drifts into ambient electronics, it’s not formless in the same way its predecessor was. Rather, Low snaps in and out of structured sound, prioritizing melody one moment and then aesthetics the next. “Days Like These,” comes close to capturing the album’s whiplash in one song. It opens like a minimal ballad, with Sparkman and Parker singing together, as endearingly as always, about the day-to-day strife of modern life over a lightly distorted keyboard. For the second verse, overblown guitar bursts out of nowhere, bringing the distortion to an overwhelming height. But by the end of the verse the incredible distortion dissipates, making way for a chilling ambient outro in its wake.