Getting a new Low album in the early spring feels inappropriate in the same way that falling in love at a funeral might. Low's melancholic rock is wintry and nocturnal, a musical approximation of watching the sun set at four in the afternoon—a sight with which the Minnesotan indie veterans are surely familiar. But that's not to say that C'mon is a case study in Seasonal Affective Disorder. Far from it. The concise and heartfelt album packs plenty of bright and redemptive moments into its 10 tracks. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker still complement their spare arrangements with indiedom's most endearing and soulful harmonies, weaving ragged comfort blankets out of what might otherwise be deeply discomfiting music. For this husband-wife duo, a cold night is just an excuse to pull your lover in close.
C'mon's chilly centerpiece, a plaintive ballad called "$20," where the key line is Sparhawk and Parker's repeated declaration that "My love is for free," could have easily had a place on the band's still-unrivaled Things We Lost in the Fire, and in some sense this is the closest the band has come to that album's sound since. That's not because Low has stepped back from the experimentation of their last few releases, but rather because they've set out to integrate their recent musical preoccupations with the spacious, reverberating sound of their 2001 breakthrough. The country and blues motifs explored with mixed results on 2002's Trust resurface, with fingerpicked melodies and pedal-steel guitar adding additional texture to highlights like "Witches," "Try to Sleep," and "Nothing But Heart." The droning organ sounds, here courtesy of bassist Steve Garrington, that have played prominent roles on the last two Low outings also work wonderfully in this context, where everything is meant to sound big, slow, and majestic.
Curiously enough, achieving C'mon's sheer beauty required Low to work against their instincts. "I didn't want to furrow my brow too much making something ugly, just because I'm sometimes uncomfortable with things being too pretty," is one of the curious comments that Sparhawk has made about the recording of the album, and it's a nearly delusional thing for him to say. Low has invented—and, by gradual adjustments, perfected—a style of graceful restraint ideally suited to their strengths as composers and performers. They can no more create ugly music than Jeff Buckley or John Lennon could; even their scathing Drums and Guns was uncommonly poised. "Witches" contains some of the grittiest guitar work ever to appear on a Low album, not to mention lyrics about fighting off night terrors with a baseball bat, but even so, it attains an uncanny grandeur that few other bands could execute.
It's telling that Low supported the Austin-based Explosions in the Sky at their Radio City Music Hall gig this week. The bands are kindred spirits: Both channel the elemental and geographic aspects of their respective North and South into resplendent and highly original rock music; both have been criticized, essentially, for preferring to be gorgeous rather than edgy. In both cases, it's a criticism that I'm at a loss to understand. Low has been releasing music for almost two decades now and so any appeal based on novelty has been depleted. But from where I'm standing, it's pretty damn exciting to see a veteran rock act doing work as inspired as any they've previously done; isn't that alone worthy of a little buzz? Whatever C'mon lacks in newness it more than compensates for in intimacy and richness. If you get familiar with it now, there's a good chance you'll learn to love it come winter.