A solid album, and you should expect no less from this band.
Still though, The Invisible Way manages to immediately stand out from a band that’s maintained the same aesthetic—“We’re going to rock your socks off! With some slow, sad stuff!”—throughout their now bi-decade long career, which is nothing short of an impressive feat, considering most bands who hit their 20th anniversary often divulge into uninspired mediocrity. The reason why this one stands out is simple.
While it may be blasphemous to even suggest to people who are bigger fans of the band than I am, I’ve always felt that other than giving the band the benefit of his name, Steve Albini, who produced some of Low’s most celebrated albums, never really fit in with their sound. His raw, punk-influenced production works wonders on bands like Cloud Nothings, Manic Street Preachers, Pixies, etc. because they were raw and punk-influenced to begin with. As soon as the melody of “Plastic Cup” comes in, this is made abundantly clear: these folks are great with melodies, and that’s a fact that was lost with Albini’s production. Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco fame), is no stranger to the mellowed out sound, which is what Wilco was best known for (past tense used deliberately because I’m not even sure what they’re known for now) and he gives both vocalists room to breathe on each song here.
The second obvious difference that separates The Invisible Way from the rest of their discography is that Mimi Parker takes on a huge role, singing lead vocals on no less than five of these eleven tracks (as opposed to only the occasional track as on their other albums). She sings leads on two of the album’s standouts, the more upbeat tracks of “So Blue” (listen especially to the climbing piano line underneath Parker’s held words during the chorus) or “Just Make It Stop” (Those melodies! Those harmonies! Those crescendos! That bass!). And even when she’s not on leads, she helps push these tracks into more memorable plains. The vocal trick used on “Plastic Cup” is not a particularly inventive one (a falsetto inflection spun into the last syllable), but I’ll defer to Pitchfork’s Stephen Deusmer’s excellent description as to what happens here, “As Sparhawk ponders the nature of time and songwriting on opener “Plastic Cup”, Parker ghosts his vocals, her voice trailing off of his and turning each line into a question thrown into the abyss,” made possible thanks to the skeletal instrumental. I’m also particularly fond of the lyrics of the opener, where years from now, people dig up a plastic cup used for drug tests, “wonder[ing] what the hell we used it for” and arriving at the conclusion, “This must be the cup the king held every night / As he cried.” Slightly absurd, I suppose, if you read the lyrics instead of hearing them sung so beautifully, but no less absurd than the recent martyrdom of Lance Armstrong (which probably inspired the song) (though I wish they gave “Plastic Cup” a better/proper ending).
Unfortunately, it’s not perfect. Comparatively then, the Parker-less “Mother” comes off a bit of a retread, without any of the things that made “Plastic Cup” great; it doesn’t help that the main melody sounds like Sparhawk had listened “Que Sera, Sera” one too many times before writing the track. “On My Own,” that follows, uses loud and fuzzed-out guitars that are reminiscent of Low’s more aggressive moments from the naughties, and while they do offer a break in the rather basic (acoustic guitar, piano, or both) formula of the songs around it, the track drags on for far too long. The repeated “Happy birthday”’s that are added later don’t come in soon enough, and once they do come in, you wish that they would stop; I don’t particularly find myself caring for who the band is singing to (it’s clearly not for me; my birthday is a long ways off), nor why they’re singing it on such an aggressive track (which makes me think that it’s certainly not them singing it for themselves, either celebrating their anniversary as a band or Sparhawk and Parker’s anniversary as a married couple).
Ah, well. One of the better gifts in 2013’s first quarter.