Damage is a structural feature of beauty in a fallen world. The sun rises on shimmering oceans, abundant forests, and cancer clinics alike. Nothing is without wound or blemish. To look at a colossal mountain range is also to gaze at a mass grave. Likewise, any body of water is a roiling horizon of unmarked burial sites. In fact, to see, touch, hear, smell, and taste anything is to receive gifts of varying degrees of damage and loss. For all its many wonders, the world is also a mausoleum, and the dead surround us at all times.
Because of Christ’s incarnation we can recognize the dishonesty of any artistic visions that exclude or minimize either damage or beauty.Consequently, serious artists have always walked a fine line between wallowing in decay and adumbrating a hidden wholeness. But here and now wholeness looks credible to us only in the shadow of brokenness. Milton can talk of “darkness visible” and Satan’s defiant cry of “evil be thou my good”—a philosophy as abject as any of the obscene fulminations in the Marquis de Sade—and it all comports well with our own twisted experience of life. After all, evil be thou my good essentially translates to: My will be done, no matter what. Conversely, Dante can also tell us of a “Living Radiance” reposing in an “abyss of light.” But his words don’t land with much force unless we make it through hell and purgatory first. It’s not that Dante’s vision of light is inherently implausible or cheaply sentimental; rather, it’s simply alien. Dante’s paradise needs the darkness of hell in order to be comprehensible to creatures of a fallen world.
Ironically, well-intentioned efforts to create works of art that exhibit pure beauty acquire an additional mark of deficiency by offering a vision that comes at the cost of truth. False consolation may be soothing, but it is far from harmless, and it’s even further from true beauty. To this point, the philosopher Peter Kreeft draws attention to the wisdom of Yogi Berra: “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”
It’s always fascinating when artists find new ways to reflect this dual aspect of worldly beauty. Low make disarmingly beautiful music, but they remain an uncompromising band. “Try to Sleep” is a serene pop lullaby; “Born By the Wires” is a 13-minute tutorial in sonic austerity that’s as unsparing as it is bleak—music from a region where everything is below freezing. In fact, Low’s songs often come with a fine layer of frost: If “(That’s How You Sing) Amazing Grace” had some kind of accompanying dance or motion, it would be a crouching-in-the-corner shiver. The same could be said of many entries in their extensive catalog.
Part of what makes Low’s new album, Double Negative, so astonishing is that damage is an integral part of its aesthetic. The Minnesota trio has teamed up with producer B. J. Burton once again, but, unlike 2015’s Ones and Sixes, the finished project is a mound of sonic ruins. Indeed, the broken sound is so pronounced that the frenetic convulsions of the opener “Quorum” might make you worry about your speakers until you hit the 1:51 mark. Like a vehicle after a collision, with its splintered glass and mangled metal, Double Negative is itself a piece of wreckage. What you hear sounds like it has survived some catastrophic accident. To draw on a sci-fi trope, we seem to have intercepted a damaged transmission about some obscure calamity.
In her justly celebrated book Love’s Knowledge, Martha Nussbaum argues that “any carefully written and fully imagined” text exhibits an “organic connection between its form and its content.” Though her argument is restricted to written texts, it’s possible to expand her remarks to include other mediums without doing violence to her overall line of thought. With regard to popular music, we might say that any fully imagined song or album will display an organic connection between its form and content. There will be a seamless fit between the words and music. Double Negative is a plaintive note in a very dark and damaged time, and that damage is registered in both word and sound. In this sense, the album is Low’s most fully imagined to date.
Lest you worry that Double Negative is unlistenable or that it collapses under its own conceptual weight, there are gorgeous moments that pierce through the wreckage: Mimi Parker’s angelic voice crying,
What could I say?
All that you gave
Chasing the line
Tear in the cut
Keep in the know
Throw in the earth
Dancing and blood.
This cryptic outburst gives way to one of Low’s trademark techniques of accentuating the space between notes, while a propulsive beat throbs like a heart in the background. Soon Mimi’s voice returns in forlorn hums and disembodied lyrical phrases. The song expires with a wavering chant, like a candle flickering in a cold room, only to merge with the next track.
“Always Trying to Work It Out” moves with the tortured steps of someone trying to run in a snowstorm. Alan Sparhawk and Parker—certainly one of the most fascinating couples in music—harmonize as the beat thuds thickly along—you can almost see tracks in the snow. Sparhawk’s voice occasionally melts into a deeper register—another intentional flaw that only enhances the pathos of the song. The celestial “Fly” has more than a few hints of Radiohead’s “Kid A,” and offers a superb overview of Parker’s agile voice. “The Son, The Sun” is a bone-chilling wail of lament—ominous, desolate, and cold as a cathedral floor. “Dancing and Fire,” with its memorable refrain of “It’s not the end / It’s just the end of hope,” will come as a relief to some listeners; it’s the most conventional track on the album, and offers a brief moment of reprieve from the surrounding storm.
One of the most urgent and energetic songs on the album is “Rome (Always in the Dark).” Symphonic, crumbling, and urgent, it’s a piece of music that matches the ruin it describes. One more seamless fade into the final track. Now we’re confronted by the jolt of “Disarray”—a song that mirrors the jarring dynamic of “Quorum,” but one that also contains moments of peace and stunning beauty, all rendered much more poignant by the splintered sonic background.
If Double Negative has a precursor, it’s 2007’s stark Drums and Guns. The propulsive beats, the dissonant notes and wavering tones are all here, but the production remains discreetly professional. Drums and Guns is ragged and angry; Double Negative is unhinged. With its rich texture and ghostly reverb, Double Negative is also much more lush and atmospheric. The band has clearly taken a leaf from Kevin Shields. For better or for worse, My Bloody Valentine’s seminal masterpiece Loveless has opened up countless possibilities, and one of them is the immaculate wreckage of Double Negative.
To my mind, if there’s one image that can encapsulate this arresting album, it’s the snow-strewn ruins of an ancient church. By turns haunting, beautiful, and sad, it’s a place that hints at a hidden wholeness, especially at moments when the sun shines through the broken stained glass windows, or when the shadow of an old cross falls across the icy floor. If you stand absolutely still, the wind howling through the sanctuary might even sound like a choir.
Interestingly, we can understand the fallenness of our world only in light of perfection. Damage may be a structural feature of earthly beauty, but it would remain inscrutable to us without some notion of total health. Phrased as a question: how could we identify damage without an understanding of wholeness? There’s a reason that medical doctors begin with healthy bodies, rather than diseased ones. Any salvage operation is doomed from the start if it can’t distinguish between health and illness.
At this point, we need to note that Nussbaum’s thesis about the integral relation between form and content displays a rich theological resonance because it bears a striking resemblance to the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation. The Apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 2:9 that in Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily”—an audacious claim that utterly exceeds the final grasp of any human mind. It is in fact a reality whose full expression requires eternity. In the meantime, we can look to Christ as embodied perfection, the deeply personal vision that throws all of this world’s damage and fragile beauty into stark relief. Because of Christ’s incarnation we can recognize the dishonesty of any artistic visions that exclude or minimize either damage or beauty. The world is neither wholly wretched nor completely worthy. In this sense, we can say that Sade is every bit as sentimental as Thomas Kinkade.
Courageous artists remind us that earthly beauty is always damaged. Christ promises that He will one day make all things new.