Low inspires with lustrous album ‘Hey What’

the album "Hey What"
Sub Pop Records/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Low, a band whose career has spanned 28 years and four bassists, was long overdue for an experimental period. Founding members Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have made slow, meditative rock for decades, noteworthy for their ominous style and two-part vocal harmonies. While the band has achieved critical success for much of its career, it’s understandable why Low wanted to change things up after 10 albums. In 2015, it paired up with BJ Burton and started on a path that would culminate in its most recent project, Hey What.

Hey What is Low’s third album overseen by Burton, an experimental engineer known for his metallic production and collaborations with Bon Iver, Charli XCX and Banks. His first collaboration with Low, Ones and Sixes, marked a notable shift in style, but the band’s true artistic volta came with its critically-acclaimed album Double Negative. Now, with the release of Hey What on Sept. 10, Low has made it clear that it’s found a niche and is sticking to it — with massive artistic success.

BJ Burton’s production across the album is easily the most defining feature of Hey What. Each track bustles with distortion, sometimes epic and striking — as on “Days Like These” — and sometimes smooth and powerful as a passing wave, shown on standout track “Hey.” On the opening track “White Horses,” Sparhawk and Parker’s vocals fight against an explosive instrumental like wild animals struggling to escape a cage. The variety of tones conjured by such stark, minimal production is surprising, especially given how the electronic distortion can sometimes make guitars, synthesizers, and drums sound one and the same. 

While it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s what, the occasional misplaced pick of a string, even when filtered through countless effects, reminds the listener that there’s something real behind these walls of sound. It’s no exaggeration to say that the production on Hey What inspires awe. As for Sparhawk and Parker’s vocals, Burton’s production is equally genius. Saturation and compression mingle with vocoders to give every word a crackling sheen, cutting across the massive instrumentals of Hey What with a metallic sharpness.

Against all of this, the record nevertheless remains organic. The album’s instrumentals shift and flow like magma, and the high-concept production works so well that it doesn’t feel like an experimental imposition — it just is. The song “Hey” exemplifies this undercurrent of life, as the track’s breathless ambient ending is like a moment trapped in amber, as effortlessly beautiful as a natural alloy. An additional highlight is the way most tracks bleed into each other, kindling a cohesive, united aesthetic.

However, the record’s commitment to ideas is also its greatest detriment. A few tracks, such as “Disappearing,” come off as mediocre rehashes of the songs that precede them, and they become a slog to listen to. Additionally, tracks such as “Hey” and “Days Like These” introduce enticing new elements that are never revisited. The latter track features the album’s only non-distorted guitar and synthesizer solo, neither of which appear on other tracks. Most disappointing of all, Burton’s production never quite breaks free of its self-imposed restraints. Ambient tracks, such as “Don’t Walk Away,” push their sound to the point of seeming cramped, while songs that are meant to be rousing, such as “The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off),” are similarly constricted. The illusion of excessive noise used across the album piques interest, but it would have been more exciting to see that illusion broken at some point.

Hey What is still an exciting triumph, the kind of album that inspires endless metaphors through its unique sound. Despite its few moments of lost potential, the album’s heights are grand enough to warrant a spot on year-end lists across the board.

Contact Alexander Balfanz at [email protected].