Low has cleaned up their sound on their 10th album, the Jeff Tweedy-produced The Invisible Way. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's harmonies are clearer and the instrumentation is more pristine. The album begins on a strong lyrical note: "You could always count on your friends to get you high," Sparhawk sings on opener "Plastic Cup," a song about failure: failed drug tests, failed relationships, and failed songwriting attempts. When he sings the word "high," Parker's voice hits a higher note and trails off, like the last whimpers of a dying woman.
While "Plastic Cup" is a typically gloomy, multi-layered, emotionally complex Low track, most of The Invisible Way relies too heavily on its production and instrumentation to do the heavy lifting. The crescendo of the slinking "Just Make It Stop" is trance-inducing, allowing you to ignore the overly repeated refrain of the song title. On the Parker-led hymn "So Blue," Tweedy makes Low sound like a big band despite the presence of only three instruments: piano, lead guitar, and drums. Parker also fronts the acoustic "Holy Ghost," delivering a stunning vocal performance that masks her prevalent use of religious cliché.
But not even Sparhawk and Parker's subtle guitar, drum flourishes, and beautifully weary voices can save some of The Invisible Way's worst tracks. While "On My Own" chugs along pleasantly enough, the duo repeats the words "happy birthday" for no apparent reason and way more times than Tweedy thanked you for nothing.
If Tweedy gives the band a bit of a boost on The Invisible Way, to compare Low's catalogue with, say, Wilco's, makes it clear just how little they've evolved. Low has found what they do well and occasionally even exceed the standards they've set for themselves, but the stoicism and gradual build that comprises the band's best songs is at times defeated by their lyrical disinterest and repetition. Unfortunately, it's those qualities that ultimately render The Invisible Way, well, invisible.