It seems to be a symptom of love, that every so often, in the middle of a sleepless night, we allow ourselves to contemplate some horrific what ifs? What if I lose my love? What if our love fades? What if we’d never met? What if one, or both of us die? It is scary and sad but these questions serve to cement us to the loved one, to maintain our desire and commitment, to stave off loss and reaffirm life. Love returns to its delightful inevitability.
And so it is with my love of Low. The band have been going strong since they appeared, seemingly fully formed, complete and perfect in 1994 with their debut album I Could Live In Hope. But I was unaware of them then, making do throughout the 90s and into the 2000s with other favourite bands and artists such as PJ Harvey, Pulp, Prince (of course), The Libertines, Go-Betweens, The Fall. I could have survived on those I guess.
Then, in 2005 my musical landscape was transformed. I went on a blind date with a beautiful yet completely incompatible man with piercing blue eyes, and an impeccable taste in music. He brought his best mate on our first and last date. I assumed I’d never see him again. But a few weeks later I got a text telling me I had to go see this band at the Leadmill in Sheffield where I lived at the time. They were called Low. So I went. And I fell in love. (Not with the blue-eyed boy who was at the Leadmill that night, with his mate in tow of course). But to him I remain eternally grateful for his parting gift).
The Great Destroyer was Low’s 7th studio album. They played most of the tracks from it the first time I saw them live. I’d bought the album the day before but hadn’t had time for it to really sink in. By the end of that evening I’d sunk deep. Some Low fans like that album least – maybe it’s too poppy for their delicate sensibilities, too mainstream? As the first I heard it remains one of my favourites. ‘When I Go Deaf’ from The Great Destroyer is not only one of my favourite Low songs, it’s one of my favourite songs of all time. Now, whenever I hear the opening chords, I feel the goosebumps return that I felt the first time. Listen.
Apart from the beautiful harmonies sung by the core members of Low – husband and wife Mimi Parker and Alan Sparkhawk of Duluth, Minnesota – and the kick-ass guitars, and the obviously classic songwriting, I noticed something at that gig that I now see as part of Low’s ‘trademark’. Their rapport with the crowd, mainly loyal fans I think, was very special. For the main part of the gig the audience, inspite of being northern, and drinking, and at the spit and sawdust venue of the Leadmill, were practically silent. They had come to hear Low not to talk or heckle. But when the trio (there’s always a Third Man in Low and always a fantastic musician and I never remember his name) came back for the encore the silence was broken. ‘TWO STEP!’ someone shouted, joined immediately by others. ‘CANADA!’ screamed someone else. ‘MAJESTY!’ I didn’t really know what was going on. But Mimi and Alan put their heads together, whispering conspiratorially, then began playing to raptuous applause. For Low, I now know, are a band who listen back, and at every gig I’ve been to they’ve played requests from their fans. These days I’m one of the shouters in the crowd, and from me it’s usually ‘BREAKER!’
In the years that followed that first Low experience, I immersed myself in their music. One patient muso friend, who also likes Low once told me that I could, you know, listen to some other stuff too. But until I’d got to know all ten albums, their B-sides and rareties and some fantastic EPs, I could’t rest. Whilst in a way I am disappointed I can’t sit here and say I have known and loved them for the full twenty years Low have been in existence, I feel very lucky to have had them and their music thrown in my lap when there was already so much of it, with so much to explore and discover all at once. Their first album was one of the last I really got into. It’s probably not as immediately accessible as some of the others. I remember a solo holiday in Brighton. Sat on the beach, drinking a bottle of prosecco, I played I Could Live In Hope on a loop on my crappy walkman CD player, and I was hooked. I think it was something to do with the sea.
I haven’t seen Low play live in 2014, twenty years since they began. But I saw them twice in 2013 – once at the Barbican, where they played with the majesty and solemnity befitting the venue and their stature. I also saw them back in Sheffield where I started, in a working men’s club. At one point Alan Sparhawk started singing the local club’s football song, winking at the crowd. It seemed like a homecoming. I am always at home with Low.
I could go on. I am sure I will – when I’ve switched my computer off for Christmas I’ll listen again to Low’s Christmas album. The final word on Christmas albums in my opinion. And I am sure Low will go on too. They are currently recording some new material and I can’t wait to see them play it. I do sometimes allow myself the awful thought of what if? What if I’d never known Low? What if they never make another record? What if one of us or both of us die? But life seems impossible without them.
NB: The ‘Third Man’ in Low now – and he really is an excellent musician – is Matt Livingston.