Low: Christmas. Radiant, Timeless
Like so many, we were deeply affected by the passing of Low’s Mimi Parker. Everyone touched by this music has an origin story with Low. Their music is often played in hushed spaces, revelling in reverence, sprinkling the corners of whatever room you hear it in with a warm, sometimes desolate, human glow. For me it was hearing their breakthrough record Secret Name on the recommendation from a friend but for many it was their revelatory take on festive songs that make up their “Christmas” album.
Mimi Parker’s presence is angel-like on Christmas, her pure tone cutting through the ice and snow with a powerful, light-filled resonance that was her vocal trademark. By this point in their career Low were masters of atmosphere, confidently simmering songs to their essential bones. They’d drop desolate chord changes and vocal turns of phrase into vast oceans of space, letting the emotion shimmer outward, gut-punch ripples that turn to waves.
“Christmas” is the Low template administered to familiar melodies and songs, bringing new meanings and resonances to songs that are the backbone of the Western canon, while adding to it with their own compositions. Low cast a veil of aural magic onto the classics and capture the psychological landscape of the season. While their music, and the way they render these yule songs, has a melancholy glimmering beneath, what’s often missed is the warmth and shades of joy and light that permeate almost every thing they do. It’s never more prevalent than on this spectacularly resonant set they recorded for fans initially before it was released widely.
Just Like Christmas opens the set, a Low original that uses the full arsenal of yuletide instrumentation; sleigh-bells, a swinging bassline and a warm production that reeks of coal burning and snow flakes hitting the windshields. Parker’s lead vocal narrates a trip in Scandanavia, driving through the snow and tapping into the universality of the season, the connection we feel to others particularly at this point in the calendar. Long Way Around The Sea is the escape from Herod narrative rendered in a lurching acoustic guitar ballad with musical and life partner Alan Sparhawk’s lead vocal augmented with a sailing Parker backing.
Little Drummer Boy fills the air it touches with a bright radiance: a fuzz organ drone and toms bathing in oceanic reverb is the bedrock for Sparhawk and Parker’s celestial duo. Their novel harmonies tease out a previously unheard pathos in the song. Their rendering of it seems to turn all matter to crystal, the drone shifts pulling the heart ever upwards. It’s masterful, somehow re-casting the original made famous by Bowie and Crosby into a hymn to be experienced in reverence, head turned to the heavens.
Low’s original If You Were Born Today reminds us of their slow-core origins, with a sparkling, clean electric guitar and minimal percussion the only accompaniments needed for the heavenly harmonies. Like all Low music, it’s music that seems born of somewhere else, somewhere pure and heavenly yet somehow in all of us. Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas is sad, but Mimi Parker’s? It’s something almost unbelievably precious, a creation to hold close. Hers is the loneliest voice in the world that paradoxically makes you feel infinitely less alone.
How would Low treat perhaps the most recognisable Christmas song of all time? Straight to the heart. Silent Night makes you a believer whethe you’re religious or not. It’s a quietly stunning rendition seemingly performed off the cuff, recorded using one mic, possibly in a wooden cabin, candle light scintilating in the evening darkness. Taking Down The Tree is a hymn of hope, all slow burning instrumentation and powerful melody. Rounding off with Parker’s solo vocal and guitar on One Special Gift, “Christmas” ends with an uncertain yet beautiful tone. Parker and a guitar, completely commanding the space and the listener’s emotions.
Mimi Parker’s music in Low has touched every one of us here and many of our customers, bringing a powerful vulnerability to the music which had a incomparable, glowing humanity and warmth. If this record was the only legacy Parker left, it would be a fine one but as an entry point to one of the most special treasure troves of contemporary music there is it’s but one example of her and her group’s gift.