Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Like a Forest

One of the already-recurring themes of my semi-public engagement with Low's discography has been the relative obscurity of their lyrics. I mean, a lot of bands I really love do this, although never in quite the same way. But if you want to talk about the cryptic nature of much of Low's lyrics, try parsing this out:

Black, like a forest
And still, like a lion
My knees are bended
We used to speak
A different language

I wasted my breath
On words soon forgotten
Left unattended
They're moving their feet
But nobody's dancing

Ah, take your time
Ah, take your time

How can I blame you
For all of the screaming
That I've had to turn to
Just in time
To go off in my hands

Okay, so as a non-religious person (who, I am sad to admit, hasn't gotten around to reading the Bible yet and so only picks up some of the wealth of allusions modern Western culture makes to it) I sometimes feel half-blind when trying to figure out what Alan is on about, although of course I don't even know there are religious references I'm missing. The bit about bended knees brings prayer to mind, but that's all. That last verse/chorus (there's no real chorus here, certainly not the "take your time" refrain, but the whole song is catchy/hooky enough that there aren't really any verses either, in the way I tend to think of them) is wonderfully evocative and, like a lot of Low, pretty forboding - there's screaming and something "[going] off in my hands" but I still don't know what's happening.

"Like a Forest" feels a bit like a lament - "We used to speak a different language" but now there's "nobody dancing," which seems like a shame. The whole structure of the question "How can I blame you" suggests that our narrator does in fact blame the person he's singing too, but except for that last section there's not so much a story going on here as a rumination. The music only reinforces all this; it starts with the doubled strings and acoustic guitar that, once Alan and Mimi reach the second line, will along with Mark D'Gli Antoni's piano plinks and Mimi's surprisingly acoustic sounding drums (I can't explain that descriptor) sweep the song along. As we progress through the verses the music gains slightly in urgency, and somewhere in the last bit I get the impression that it's leading the vocals rather than vice versa, and as they draw out that last "hand" the violin becomes quite stirring.

One thing that had never really hit me until this very day as I looked through the liner notes for Things We Lost in the Fire was how much collaboration takes place here. Earlier albums had the odd keyboard part from a producer or what have you, but there are eight people (not counting a photographer and Hollis, about which more on "In Metal") listed in the liners, providing everything from extra guitar to trumpet to loops to backing vocals. I think this may be why the album is so loved, especially from people who found early Low too chilly - or rather, too insular. There's more of a communal feel here. And although "Like a Forest" could have easily turned up on an earlier record it wouldn't have been so warmly burnished, and as a result wouldn't have been one of the most welcoming tracks on a Low album. It's short, it's sweet, but it doesn't miss out on the essential darkness or at least strangeness of the Low experience (so to speak).

And a postscript on the 'meaning' of "Like a Forest," albeit one that begins to confuse me more. I looked it up on the song meanings page, and aside for some effusive praise for their collaborators here (Ida Pearle and Zach Wallace apparently did all of their parts in four hours), there's the following gnomic utterance: "guy i know blew off part of his hand with a firecracker when he was a kid..."

Okay, so that's the last part of the song, Alan. How the hell do you get from that image to the rest? I love "Like a Forest," and I really wouldn't want the band to become any less opaque than they already are (I may not be able to convey to you in words what "Like a Forest" means, but like most Low songs I can feel the answer - kind of like the National, really). But you can see how this can occasionally get a bit frustrating.


Inverarity said...

To me, the great mystery of Low is how they say so much with such spare lyrics.

Ian said...

Definitely - and the weird thing to me is that unlike a lot of bands with a similar lyrical sparseness, I don't think it's just down to performances (although those are also very strong). I'm not sure what that other quality or technique is, though.