It’s all to do with allegory. Ghost stories aren’t about the ghost. Rather, they serve as mirrors, reflecting and refracting who we are and what we are, where we’ve been, where we’re headed.
Low have always been a band for late autumn or winter – which is when ghost stories work best. Something to do with the quality of light, perhaps; creeping mist across the marsh, the twilight hues, broken windows. Is a double negative truly a positive, when it could just as easily invoke twin exposure, apparitions flitting across the camera lens?
And should Double Negative be a ghost story, then it’s us who are the spectres. We invest in false prophets. Fill our oceans with toxins. Scuttle about the crevices of late-period capitalism like scarab beetles. Double Negative sees all this, and it recoils.
The result is a complex, often challenging record – only not for reasons initially revealed. There’s little concession to immediacy here, the lyrics obtuse and lost-at-sea, each musical structure contorted, forcing the listener to do their share of the lifting.
Furthermore, Low have spent the past two-plus decades crafting homely (albeit quirky), slow-burn indie-pop. Feuillemorte harmonies, a back-cat beholden to minimalistic equilibrium. Double Negative diverges somewhat from such patterns, which makes that first listen a teensy-weensy bit disorientating.
A brief aside: Pitchfork, Drowned in Sound, Uncut, Under the Radar; all referenced Radiohead’s Kid A in their reviews of Double Negative, because any “indie-band-makes-unexpected-experimental-album” trope can only be understood in relation to another indie band who once released an LP that didn’t fit lazy preconceptions. And it’s true that both albums subvert conventions behind what guitar-centric music is supposed to sound like; both represent variation upon ghost story.
Yet these hauntings don’t survive comparison; not once you’ve stared closely. The Radiohead record is fascinating, but it feels frigid – a coldness by design that at worst comes across as self-indulgent. There’s an inherent insularity to Kid A; rage turned inwards, a self-propagating discombobulation.
It’s also, in terms of lineage, a little jarring. Something about that record is divorced from canon, as if there’s an LP missing after OK Computer to bridge the gap between millennial angst indie-rock and any subsequent iciness.
Double Negative is also cold, is also jarring. It constantly plays sonic tricks on the listener; opening track ‘Quorum’ pivots around a white noise loop and distorted vocals that suggests your speakers are banjaxed; the mesmeric starkness of ‘Always Trying to Work It Out’ is subjugated by patterns that constantly shift, curling in and around themselves like musical ivy.
Double Negative is cold, is jarring – it’s a ghost story, after all. But a story – unlike Kid A – that simultaneously flexes with warmth and logic; pulsing opposites. “It’s not the end, it’s just the end of hope,” Alan Sparhawk laments on ‘Dancing and Fire’, Mimi Parker’s harmonies striking (because it’s a Low record) yet framing the woozy, heat-beneath-frost sense of unsettlement in ways that (and this is the case for the entire album) suggest new elements to uncover on each listen. Different emotions, competing yet complementary, and everything interwoven. A puzzle to unpick. A warning to the curious.
And it may be the end of hope, yet it doesn’t feel that way; Low haven’t given up on us – not entirely. “Before it falls into total disarray / You’ll have to learn to live a different way” the Parker/Sparhawk singularity warn on closing incantation ‘Disarray’. It’s a track in which the definitions of percussion are blurred. Ditto: guitar (and there’s so much guitar on this LP – it just doesn’t readily sound that way, so delightfully contused are this record’s contours). Are warnings usually this beguiling? Should they be?
The joy of Double Negative: its fluidity. Those cerebral touches. Its approach to how noise should work. Low albums come always understated, because that’s what they do, have always done (this is their 12th studio album, and the thematic continuity is resolute, experimentalism or no). The difference, perhaps, between now and what came before dwells in the detail; rich currents that serve as fuel. A record to crawl under skin, to revisit, to placate spectres.
Tonally, it’s far more reminiscent of late-period Talk Talk than Radiohead.
Also: the ghost stories of MR James.