Happy 25th Anniversary to Low’s debut album I Could Live In Hope, originally released February 18, 1994.
I will forever remember the moment I first heard Low. Just twenty-four hours earlier, I didn’t know of the band called Low from Duluth, Minnesota (nor did I know of the town Duluth!). But, a new friend had suggested we go see their show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, reiterating the music zine review that captured his interest. “Faith-era Cure,” he beamed, eliciting excitement from me, too, and the next afternoon, I scooped up Low’s debut without a second thought.
My memories of what transpired next are equally lucid and jumbled. I recall nearly bounding up the hill from Westwood back to my dorm on the UCLA campus. It was April, and as the sunshine splashed around me, I felt warmed by the sense of accomplishment that the end of my freshman year was near. Plus, more immediately, I couldn’t wait to get home to tear the shrink wrap off my new purchase and give the disc a whirl.
As soon as my building came into view, the springtime levity fell away and I instantly gleaned something was very wrong. The front doors to Dykstra Hall were flung wide-open, which was never the case, and I remember thinking I did not want to set one foot inside. Somehow, my body carried out the motions and I walked past small clusters of people, all in varying states of sorrow. I think I made it to my room or somewhere close when my roommate began shrieking, “She doesn’t know! She doesn’t know! Look at her…she doesn’t know!”
I don’t remember who actually uttered the terrible news or the words they used to convey it, but I soon learned that a floormate had committed suicide that morning. In some ways it seemed selfish to feel anything, but I sympathized with him, his roommate who found him, his family and close friends, and all my floormates who knew him. And for all those feelings I had that day and the ones I’ve had since, I found and continue to find solace in Low’s debut, I Could Live In Hope.
It was evening when I slipped the album into my stereo. At the time, I barely glimpsed the simple, sepia-toned cover with its compact title, but those five words have come to mean the world to me. I later realized just how perfectly “I Could Live In Hope” embodies the band’s aesthetic, especially in those early years—understated, pure and beautiful.
I sat on a wooden chair in my dorm room so overwhelmed by the shock and grief and confusion that a gray exhaustion had set in. I wasn’t thinking about why I sought out the album. I had no expectations. I was only passing time.
The album opener “Words” met me right where I was, enveloping that deep darkness. It was as though someone else sensed the surrounding abyss and understood the best way to reach me. Rather than trying to lift me out, they just signaled, relating they were lost in some cave somewhere, too. And, in this shared knowing, in this kinship, in this collective humanity, we would all be okay.
“Words” is by no means a happy song, not on its surface and not at its core. The bass is heavy, the measured pace is haunting and the lyrics are opaquely grim (“‘Is that the truth?’ he says / The pain is easy / Too many words, too many words”). Yet, its spirit is uplifting. There’s something extraordinarily captivating about the individual voices of wedded singers Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, and when their emotive powers lock together, the consequence is nothing short of transcendent. “Words” was my very first impression of Low, and all of these years later, it remains one of my all-time favorite songs—not just by them, but any band. It clocks in at just under six minutes. In the space of that modest time, it cradles and rattles me, awakens tears and electrifies my nerves with a million goosebumps. I’ve never been religious, but music beckons my spirituality precisely due to experiences like this.
I must’ve listened to the whole of I Could Live In Hope four or five times that strange evening, letting Low’s outpouring of strength and love wash over me. In addition to “Words,” I recall being stung by “Cut,” mesmerized by “Slide” (the first time I heard a Parker-led Low song, and oh my is it gorgeous) and taken by the woozy allure of the Twin Peaks reminiscent track “Lazy.”
From the release of I Could Live In Hope in 1994 to Low’s third album The Curtain Hits the Cast two years later, music critics favored adjectives like sparse and minimalist to describe the band’s aesthetic. Some even categorized them as purveyors of the slowcore or sadcore movement, as a way to distinguish their unhurried brand of indie from the well-trodden terrain of grunge and more commercial alternative pop. And while it’s true Low were deliberate and introspective, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a world of dirge and despair. The trio of bassist, singer/guitarist and singer/percussionist managed to conjure intricate soundscapes that glided across your mind and waltzed through your heart. No one played with time and space like Low. They tempered our understanding of quiet and loud and negotiated new tensions, imbuing the silence between notes with sacred drama and meaning.
Longtime NYC producer Mark Kramer, who’s collaborated with bands like Galaxie 500, Luna and Sonic Youth, keyed into Low’s dynamic expertly, punctuating idiosyncrasies beyond the vocals, including Sparhawk’s enchanting gift for guitarwork and Parker’s distinctive snare drum and ride setup, complete with snazzy brushes—a fixture of her percussionist style I’ve come to adore.
That first night listening to Low, I had no way of knowing what lay ahead. I just connected to their music intensely. When my friend called to ask if I was interested in that Troubadour show, I gratefully accepted the invitation. I must quickly pause here and say thank you, Jason, for introducing me to Low and taking me to my first Low show.
The truth is that I needed their music so much then, and still do.
Over the last two decades, I’ve seen them perform close to 50 times, and hope to see them at least 50 more times. In 1996, weeks after falling for I Could Live In Hope, I wrote Low a letter, thanking them for helping me through very difficult times. I stand by those words today and echo them tenfold. I like to believe that had I not had the fortune of finding them at the age of 18, I would have one day.
The end of Faith, The Cure album referenced in that review which led to Jason’s (and my eventual) discovery of Low closes with the lyric, “With nothing left but faith”—a sentiment quite similar to “I Could Live In Hope.” It makes me think that maybe the music we need is already inside of us.