There are two, maybe three singers in the history of rock‘n’roll who can get away with singing about monkeys. Alan Sparhawk, the unassuming, pale-faced frontman of Duluth, Minn. trio Low, is not one of them. Frank Black of the Pixies and John Lennon pulled it off by burying their tongues so far in their cheeks that it took years of self-serving solo work to excavate them. Almost no one, however, could sing a line like “Tonight the monkey dies” in earnest and come out on top. Can someone please add this to the rock‘n’roll holy tablatures? “Thou shall not sing seriously about monkeys” or something?
On The Great Destroyer, Low set out to redefine themselves as a rock band, taking up the cause with loud electric guitars and upbeat tempos. For anyone even tangentially familiar with Low’s body of work, this is the sonic equivalent of Shaquille O’Neal trying to reinvent himself as a point guard. Fans will rightly wonder why the trio is suddenly playing mid-tempo alt-rock after more than a decade of crafting famously slow, embarrassingly pretty anti-anthems. Not surprisingly, Destroyer places Low in a context so far removed from their strengths that even the occasional showstopper won’t save them from their self-imposed exile.
To the band’s credit, they make a wholesale transformation: Only a few moments on Destroyer could even conceivably exist on the band’s older records. But their failings aren’t mechanical: Drummer/vocalist Mimi Parker provides a steady spine for Sparhawk’s robust guitar sound and surprisingly assured vocals. Instead, the faults lie in Low’s abandonment of their molasses lullabies. All of the band’s stylistic strides are aimed squarely at the middle of the road. The icy harmonies of Parker and Sparhawk that guided the band’s best material suffocate amid the throaty guitar attacks.
Downcast tracks like “Everybody’s Song” and “On the Edge” choke out melody with Sparhawk’s brooding, which is decidedly less appealing in the context of these guitar-heavy tunes. “Cue the Strings” is a self-fulfilling prophecy, riding a god-awful string section. “Broadway (So Many People)” paints a picture of a picturesque (but boring) trip to New York. “Silver Rider” and “Pissing” are violently forgettable five-minute rock songs.
The band’s career experience does occasionally show. “Walk Into the Sea” benefits from a fuzz-stained recording, which lends it a vibrancy missing from Destroyer’s lackluster six-string stew. “When I Go Deaf” slides along slowly with the album’s most clever lyric before erupting brilliantly into a coda of warm, distorting guitars. “Just Stand Back” is an example of what happens when things go right. As Sparhawk coolly sighs, “I could turn on you so fast,” bassist John Nichols forges a melodic undercurrent for the album’s only great pop hook.
It’s perfectly reasonable to expect a band to reinvent themselves a few times over the course of 15 years, especially when that band built its name on Midwestern dirges, but The Great Destroyer fails both as a rock album and as a Low album. It is the worst kind of compromise, abandoning the band’s calling card in favor of an uninteresting blend of underground rock workouts. Low may have been due for a change, but The Great Destroyer does nothing to dissuade the notion that Low is a one-trick pony.
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars