Monday, May 14, 2007


"Sunflower" was the first song I ever consciously heard by Low, and also my first favourite Low song (although it's not as coincident as that makes it sound). I got into the band via glenn mcdonald (scroll down), and what with music being hard-ish for me to get at the time, this being the days before Stylus, Soulseek or even the student newspaper, I trucked on down to the now-moved Music in Orbit and bought the only Low album they had on offer. Hey, glenn said "There's nobody into whose care I'd rather silence be entrusted," what's $25 that you really can't afford, sound unheard?

So I troop out of the store with this album with a moon map and a mysterious rusted metal label on the front, and strangely photocopied-looking art; to this day the maroon ink they use on the back for the tracklisting makes for one of my favourite back covers of an album ever (let no one say I am not weird and obsessive, although I can honestly say I've never made a list of those). I had that same sick thrill I always had when spending too much money on music that I might wind up, honestly, hating. I'd been burned enough times it was still exciting, but not so much I was gunshy.

I was raised without religion, and I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that even at 20 I got this odd kind of giddy shock from hearing lines like "Underneath the star of David / A hundred years behind behind my eyes," especially from a band I felt a bit of trepidation about because they were, you know, religious (I'm much less naive now, thanks). I got the reference, but I had no idea what it means, and I still don't. They talk of "with your half of the ransom," of "giant Xs on your eyes," and of buying sweet, sweet, sweet sunflowers "for the night." It was funnier and more cryptic and much less evangelical than I'd been half expecting. To steal another line from glenn:

"The idea that Alan and Mimi are Mormons turns out to have been an extremely clever bit of meta-information to overlay on their songs, quite independent of what extent to which it's accurate, but even without it I think these songs would maintain the bulk of their ambiguities."

One of the things I most love about Low is that I honestly have no idea what their beliefs are, even after watching the DVD in A Lifetime of Temporary Relief. I get some sense of what they value from religion, I think, from albums like Secret Name and the almost painfully austere Trust, and recently I've been feeling Alan has lost some of his faith (Drums and Guns strikes me as being very, very angry with God, although I could easily be wrong), but we're left with the vague outlines of something that is, after all, very private and none of our business. I have a great love of the incomplete, the shadowy, the mysterious when done a certain way, and Low certainly apply.

But I also love, for a band I feared I'd find boring and colourless and slow from reviews I'd read, the way Mimi very slowly beats the hell out of her drum kit, and the perfectly placed strings and the unison of the voices (just you wait until I get to "(That's How You Sing) Amazing Grace"!), and how alive the whole thing was. I even love the little hiccup (guitar? voice?) that launches the song again after the mid-track pause. Admittedly Things We Lost in the Fire (what a painfully apt album title for 2001, in retrospect) is still in some ways their most welcoming album and the one I'd recommend starting with, but even here there are stunning moments of quiet and stillness. "Sunflower" isn't one, but already I was getting the sense that this was a band who were content to make their own sense; you were welcome to participate, but they weren't going to invite you in too far. Back then I was focused on music that was loud and angry and fast; now I listen to far more music that is quiet and graceful and emotionally affecting (not that the loud, fast stuff never was). "Sunflower" was the beginning of that progression.


Michael said...

I'm going to be woefully inarticulate here, but this is definitely one of my very favorite Low songs. Great job with it!

Ian said...

Thanks! So far I feel like I'm not really getting out what I want to express about these songs, but we'll see... hopefully I'll settle into more of a groove and get a little deeper in the future.

Inverarity said...

I look forward to seeing what you have to say about "In Metal." One of the most disturbing tracks by any artist I know of.

"July" is the track that made me sit up and take notice, and it just may still be my favorite.

Ian said...

I'm glad someone else has that take on "In Metal" - that's the way I've always felt about it, but I keep hearing it's heartwarming. Which it is, but also more than a little creepy; one of the things I love in Low is that those two feelings often come together.

Things We Lost in the Fire is one of those albums that I tend to forget I really love until I hear it again, and something like "July" is a great example of that. A few of the tracks (this one, "Closer," "Medicine Magazines") I sort of always remember I like, but something like "July" I tend to pass over until someone mentions it, at which point I go "that's such a great song." I think I'll go listen to it now.

Ian said...

Postscript: Now that I've rediscovered Alan's old comments on these songs, I'd like to note that he says of "Sunflower," "some people thing this song is morbid, but it's a love song." Which is interesting, because (a) that means there's at least three on this album by my count, possibly some kind of career high for Low, and (b) although the "with your half of the ransom" parts resonated with the kind of ache that only comes from mourning, I don't think I connected that or this song with love at all.