There are a lot of things I don’t remember very well from the years in between my mom first being diagnosed with cancer and losing that battle. Because this is the way life so often functions, it’s the years of stability that seem to be the fuzziest, the times she had “beat” her diagnosis and was healthier. I remember bits of happiness from then but mostly what I remember is a static hum of anxiety, an instinctual feeling that this was just calm before the storm, that our family was fighting a battle that wasn’t really ever going to be won. My mom would never let on that she heard that hum too– until her final month of life she was determined to not let the cancer get in the way of her enjoying her life and family as much as possible. But I know it was there, even if I didn’t know how to talk to her about it, or how to talk to anyone about it, really. The intense anxiety of that feeling is still something I can only really communicate through work by others, and Low’s Secret Name was there from the start, expressing a suite of feelings I couldn’t put into words, connected through its own hum, droning, anti-melodic noise looped in the background of the bulk of its songs, provoking fear and tension in both the beautiful and horrifying moments of the album.
At the center of Secret Name is “Don’t Understand,” a piece that begins with a high pitched noise and an alien sounding loop before Mimi Parker’s ominous percussion and Alan Sparhawk’s booming guitar open the song up. Even before Sparhawk’s uncertain yet enraged voice emerges, the song communicates the frustration of its title, voices howling in the night at the heavens, questioning unnamed injustice. An examination of the lyrics indicates the song is about betrayal, but for me it became the soundtrack to the holidays 13 years ago, when my parents told me about my mom’s diagnosis before telling my younger siblings, testing the information out on me before moving ahead with this new status quo.
This is something I do remember well, my mom silent in a chair beside the fireplace, my dad sitting on the couch beside me, the words clear and understandable yet completely beyond my understanding. In my head “Don’t Understand” is always just the pounding of the guitar and drums and the repetition of the title, I don’t hear the rest of the lyrics, my subconscious getting meta, making the song fit the way I really only heard the cancer part of the information my parents gave me.
I think back on that time and I feel fractured, and Secret Name is a similar experience. It’s an album that is split between dark, ominous moments like “Don’t Understand” but also intense, heartbreaking beauty like “Immune” and “Starfire,” songs where the percussion is still simple and commanding but it’s in service to angelic melodies and gorgeous chords. The cycle of Secret Name mimics a type of depression, beginning with bleak lows, offering up unimaginable highs, never really giving you a stable middleground. But even in the high parts, phrases leap out at me, like “Starfire” and its image of “broken bodies all the time,” or “Missouri” and those “faces painted black,” the way the title itself starts to sound more and more like “misery” as the song progresses.
Low’s music is intimately minimalist, which is a big part of why it’s so malleable. The mix on “Weight of the Water” is so open that the sparse chord changes are as clear as the river imagery Parker returns to in the lyrics, the build of the song expressed not through fills or the introduction of new chords but just slight alterations of what’s already there, like the swell of cello and the subtle integration of Sparhawk’s backing harmonies. Where other artists will pack albums with so many details you can’t hope to uncover them in your first few listens, Low use wide open spaces and simple structures to force you to fill in the blanks with your own emotional reactions and invisible but still heartfelt sounds. It succeeds to such a degree that whenever I hear the album, I don’t know what emotional response it will provoke in me– at times, I only hear the sadness it surgically extracts from me, in other moments it makes me remember the happy moments in otherwise bleak times.
There’s a line in “2-Step” that expresses it best: “And the light, it burns your skin/In a language you don’t understand.” Low deal in sound instead of tactile sensation but the point is the same, the feeling of their music hits you in a way you can’t ignore even if you are unable to communicate the feeling. You don’t have to understand the work to accept and utilize it, or for it to be able to understand you, perhaps better than even you are able to understand yourself. What Low ask for is a willingness to give in to every part of their music, to let it sink into your flesh as well as your ears– the band’s contemporary tactic of turning themselves down at shows wasn’t a gimmick but a necessary way of shocking audiences into attention not through boldness but fragility, you had to actually work to hear what they were doing, and in doing so you were rewarded.
On a personal level, being able to return to an album that allowed me to safely embrace the anxious drone that otherwise made me panic was a relief. The simplicity of Secret Name, the constant use of repeated phrases and looped melodies and noise, functioned as a calming mantra. It didn’t resolve anything but it provided a space for me to just accept and examine what I was feeling without judgment. Sometimes that meant staring into space and honing in on the drone, other times it meant clenching my fists in immobile anger as “Don’t Understand” repeated, and occasionally it meant openly crying to the beauty and cruelty of “Weight of the Water.” Even now with the distance of a few years from loss, the album is a rare open space, a work I trust and still seek to fully understand.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover