On their last two albums, Drums and Guns and C’mon, the placidity of Low’s music was becoming less of a feature, with louder guitars and a seething undercurrent in some of Alan Sparhawk’s songs, as if the work he was doing with Retribution Gospel Choir (which he was involved with concurrently with those two records) was spilling over into his main band. The Invisible Way therefore seems like a bit of a step back; it’s their quietest and simplest record for some time, and much closer to their slowcore beginnings.
The Invisible Way was recorded at Wilco’s studios in Chicago, and having Jeff Tweedy behind the desk they might have been tempted to try out some artier production styles as we often hear on Wilco records or as Low tried themselves on Drums and Guns. However, Sparhawk has said that Tweedy’s simplistic production approach on his work with Mavis Staples is what convinced him to have the Wilco frontman work with Low. The Invisible Way is a very sparse album that always places vocals as the focal point on every track, with minimal accompaniment on the peripheries. The amount of space in each track is emphasized by the clarity of the pianos and guitars; the drums still cavernously echo as on C’mon but when played as softly as they are here they serve more to help the song breathe than lift it entirely. The only moment where Sparhawk gets out his electric guitar and allows it to exhale its usual metallic yawn is the scrawling conclusion to “On My Own.”
This is Low’s tenth album and by now they know how to make an album with consistently good songs from beginning to end. With a palette as simple as this they have no trouble in making sure that every song is pleasant, but the moments where the pleasantness are broken in a moment of musical, vocal or lyrical catharsis are less prominent than on other Low records. The sparser arrangements suit Mimi Parker’s beautiful tones more, which is probably why she leads on almost half the songs here (much more than her usual one or two) and as is often the case she steals the show with a couple of these more emotional moments. Both “So Blue” and “Just Make It Stop” find Parker’s double-tracked voice buffering through rousing choruses on the top of chugging piano chords and emphatic brush-stick drumming, which allow her exclamations of universal frustrations we all feel about love and life all the more relatable. Even more impressive is her vocal performance on “Holy Ghost” where it’s draped delicately over barely-there pianos and drums to create a stirring hymn of a song. Although not all the songs on The Invisible Way have noteworthy moments, the simplistic grandiosity that’s consistent through the whole album is enough to keep you engaged.
The two year gap between C’mon and The Invisible Way is a relatively short one for Low, which suggests a good working relationship in the studio, and this is supported by the output. The songs on the album sound as if they’ve come together quickly and naturally, which is also good from the listener’s perspective as none can be heard as too challenging or overwrought. The character of each new Low album is always a mystery until you hear it, so speculating on whether they’re likely to continue working in this manner is pointless at this juncture, but it’s good to know that ten albums in Low still have the ability to put together a stirring collection of songs.