Review Summary: Lowering our expectations
I’ll never forget the first time I heard The Invisible Way
. It was my first time anticipating a new release from Low, the iconic indie-rockers from Minnesota, as I had begun being a fan around the time of their previous LP, 2011’s C’Mon
. I was sitting in my car, which was parked on a large ferry boat, heading back home after a visit with friends and family to the town I grew up in. It was early, cold, and I was tired, so I thought I would use the next hour and a half to try to get some rest (Low are known to help with that). I played opening track “Plastic Cup,” and Alan Sparhawk’s voice broke through the rumbles of the boat pulling away from the dock, and it was a perfect moment: You could always count on your friends to get you high, that’s right/ You could already count on the ‘rents to get you by, you could fly.
It had been an emotional visit home for me, and these words struck a chord. I felt like he was talking directly to me; it was moving. I began to feel like possibly Low had it in them to produce another record of immense impact and quality like their opuses of years past.
Initial reactions and surreal personal connections aside, nothing outside of the first thirty seconds really jumps out as special, unfortunately. The whole album floats on by, as Low albums usually do, and it is surely an enjoyable experience. This time though, it feels like something is missing. It could be that, nearly twenty years into their illustrious career, Low have begun to run out of ideas, because their 2013 effort gives the distinct impression that they are content simply going through the motions of creating another passable album. This is not to say, necessarily, that The Invisible Way
feels like a rehash of past successes, but rather that it does not bring much of its own character to the basic structure of their sound. What had previously made their music so great was the way that they always used their distinct sound as a base (the slowly-building, soothing, almost hypnotizing sound) but still managed to bring some unique flair to each individual album. Most fans would agree that Low’s best days are long gone, but at least their previous effort C’Mon
was full of character and creative ideas. There are definitely bits of that to be found on The Invisible Way
, but they are far less effective in fostering any sort of "unique flair" for this album.
The largest thing that sets this apart from any other Low album is that the vocals seem to have taken a much more central role. Their music has always relied heavily on the combination of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s vocals to set the mood of the music, and sometimes even carry the sonic tone of a song. So, in theory, it shouldn't be an issue that they are more prominent. This time however, everything else feels, largely, lost in the mix. Instead of creating the type of sound that listeners could find themselves lost in, bathing in warm guitar tones and enveloped by an ocean of beautiful noise (as is standard fare for the majority of their albums), this record seems to focus on the vocals to anchor the music, and the other instruments feel more like supporting acts than pillars of the sound. This is not always the case of course, and there are instances of noteworthy piano lines or guitar riffs sprinkled throughout this album. The best example of this might be the penultimate track “On My Own” which, in its second half, bursts into a captivating jam fueled by a slightly crunchy guitar riff and a slow, driving drum beat. These moments are few and far between, and overall, it is not enough to give The Invisible Way
much of a character of its own when put in the context of the rest of their discography.
Despite these qualms, the album actually succeeds in delivering another satisfactory addition to the band’s impressive body of work. It’s not that anything here is “bad” or not worthwhile, it’s just that the band is capable of so much better. At the end of the day, the album still delivers most of what one would typically expect from Low. It is distinctly slow, full of beautiful vocal interplay, and immensely calming like nothing else you will hear all year. If I had but one word to describe this album, I would say “pleasant.” Nothing much really jumps out and grabs the listener, demanding their attention. But on the other hand, it would be a stretch to accuse the album of being boring, or lacking in enjoyable moments. “Middle of the road” describes it well. It’s definitely worth a few listens, but most fans will soon be going back to I Could Live in Hope
or Things We Lost in the Fire
in lieu of The Invisible Way
for their daily dose of Low.
Long-time fans of the band will surely not be blown away, but most will be satisfied. For potential new fans, this is as good a starting point as any, in a way. It still displays the sound that Low cultivated throughout the mid-90s and into the early 2000s, albeit in a less mesmerizing and commanding fashion. All bands that last as long as Low will have peaks and valleys, but the best bands are the ones that can consistently produce worthwhile music that can still connect with their fans, even when they’re deep in a valley. The glory days have definitely passed Low by, but The Invisible Way
is still a solid, if mildly disappointing, piece of work.