tarting your album in 2007 with “All soldiers, they’re all gonna die” is not winning friends and influencing people. Nor is making the best record of your career eight tries in, with a new band member and few of the customary signs of an Important Work (no epic lengths, no guest stars, no “concepts”). Nobody told Alan Sparkhawk and Mimi Parker that, though, and no one reminded them they’re supposed to rest on their laurels and settle down. And so while Low ended their last album with “Walk Into the Sea,” a song gracefully accepting death, “Pretty People” begins Drums and Guns by taunting all and sundry with their mortality. That hard-won peace of mind hasn’t slipped away so much as burst asunder.
In hindsight, The Great Destroyer was even more definitely the right course of action, a necessary and successful loosening of the reins, the indie rock album they needed to make to see if they could. What it did for Low is less tangible than just prefigure Drums and Guns; here, they marry the bleak intensity of their earlier years with the aesthetic openness of their recent work that leaves them freer to experiment and diversify. The drum machines, loops, and newly dexterous grasp of the studio-as-instrument have no equivalent in Low’s previous work. It’s the establishment of a new form, one that discards the letter of what came before to better express the spirit.
But it’s not as if the band and producer Dave Fridmann’s work here has no relation to their history. At times—the organ-and-handclap reverie of “Breaker,” the way “Dragonfly” evokes Secret Name’s fragmentary closer, “Home”—it seems as if Drums and Guns is built out of past albums’ odd little diversions, the unsettling scraps that offset the warmer, brighter songs. Low used to be a guitar band, but Drums and Guns isn’t a guitar album; instead there are sounds and structures here that bring to mind everyone from Susumu Yokota (“Belarus”) to Benoit Pioulard (“Take Your Time”). It’s still identifiably Low, but richer and more diverse than before.
Mimi is, as always, the more inscrutable of the two songwriters. She breathes, “It won’t let me keep what I steal / Tell me, where can a girl get a meal?” in darkly gorgeous fashion on “Dust on the Window,” but elsewhere is content to let her voice blend with Alan’s. It’s Low’s oldest and most dependable trick—not quite harmony or unison, it’s the sound of gestalt, an emergence greater than its parts. Their songwriting has only improved with time, and while there’s not a “Will the Night” or “Over the Ocean,” the batch here quickly reveals itself to be the band’s strongest.
And while Low has one of the most coherent and absorbing sounds extant, it’s a frustratingly difficult one to write about. “Christian rock” tags—Sparhawk and Parker are Mormon—never fit, and from Trust onward they’ve hinted at a crisis of faith, whether in God or everything else. Alan has always been hard on himself and the world, and his songs have the curious, powerful property of showing with painful clarity how terrifyingly easy it is to lose ourselves without noticing, and yet remain a source of strength and comfort. The same band that sang “Are you a lion or a lamb / Are you as guilty as I am?” years ago now asks whether the Lord needs a murderer, continuing, “And I’ve read your book / Seems that you could use another fool.” What makes Low so interesting, above and beyond their musical qualities, is that these aren’t contradictory accounts—the band turn the harsh light of their search for meaning and peace on the high and low alike; the austerity of that quest is the only thing about their music that could be called monastic.
Any record where the single features Alan’s anguished cry of “My hand just kills and kills” isn’t going to mark an abandonment of Low’s central concern with how to exist fairly and happily in this world, but “Murderer” in particular is genuinely wracked, essential listening for anyone who thinks Sufjan Stevens reaches towards religious profundity. Like all true faith, Low’s is a difficult and personal one, and they’ve fully realized their ability to turn it into bracing, intelligent, and beautiful music. God only knows what they’re capable of now.