Music | Puzzling: Low’s Alan Sparhawk doesn’t want to write easy songs, just good ones 

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Alan Sparhawk is basically a Chinese box. At first glance, the frontman and songwriter for Low—Duluth, Minnesota’s purposefully sluggish slowcore pioneers—seems like just a simple guy. He has a family. Plays in a couple bands. Tries to get by like everyone else. Even Low’s albums are, on the surface, relatively simple—moody and starkly beautiful, but ultimately simple.

Then you start to pay attention—to the lyrics, to the intentionally minimized sounds, to the meshing of his voice with that of his wife and drummer Mimi Parker. That’s when you find the first hidden lock. You discover the manifesto in all that quiet emptiness. You find the delicate love in those harmonies. And you discover Sparhawk is, like that other Duluth export, Bob Dylan, saying a lot more than he often lets on.

“You know, I like music that challenges people morally and spiritually,” he says while sitting at his kitchen table, the sounds of his kids playing in the background. “That’s the kind of music that inspires me the most and what I come back to over and over. That’s what I want to do with Low.”

Mission accomplished—and then some. Over the course of Low’s considerable career—15 years and counting—Sparhawk has not only sparked the so-called “slowcore” movement (bands that deliberately play on the mellow side of the spectrum), but he also causes more than his share of raging Internet debates and critical theorizing. His lyrics are often as dense as quantum theory, and just vague enough to require some interpretation.

That’s what causes the trouble. Nothing is straightforward. Like last year’s Drums and Guns. While some claimed it was Sparhawk’s meditation of the Iraq War, the singer urging everyone to stand up and protest, others saw it as more of a contemplative analysis of the anger and violence inside all of us. And tracks like “Murderer,” a song essentially about a soldier taking up arms for God and the foolish consequences of his actions, could be taken either way depending on your political stance. Same goes for “Your Poison,” Sparhawk beckoning the “good people” at the beginning of the track with a preacher-like tone before pointing the finger and saying those slick tongues are actually evil. He could be condemning religion, though, the fact that he’s a devout Mormon adds a layer of intrigue to that interpretation. He could be damning those who use religion for their own evil means. Or it could be … well, you see the problem.

“I really treat writing very seriously,” he says. “I work really hard at it. We do have a particular taste and a particular approach, and so that requires some real effort. And sure, anyone who writes a song wants people to analyze it and say, ‘What’s that?’ That’s a little ego boost. But, really, I just want to write good songs.”

And Sparhawk just seems to be getting better at that. Sure, some questioned whether he’d lost his way with The Great Destroyer, Low’s more rocking 2005 release. And there are those who disregard Sparhawk’s side project, Retribution Gospel Choir, as his “loud” band. Both are really just extensions of Sparhawk’s skills. Sure, he can write muted and beautiful; just listen to Drums and Guns’ electro-enhanced “Belarus” and its ballet of voices. But he’s also shown that he has the kind of range that some questioned he had. He even can make some songs work in multiple ways, several tracks appearing on both Low discs and at either Retribution or Black Eyed Snakes—another Sparhawk side project—live shows.

“There was a time when I thought I was going to have to answer for that,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh no, which band plays which song?’ But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, after a certain point, you let it roll. If it works in a certain band, play it. If it sounds better a certain way, play it. It doesn’t matter what other people say.”

Which will probably make all those debaters freak about a little bit—or go on another rampage, maybe. And Sparhawk is OK with that. It just adds another little compartment to his personal puzzle.

LOW w/ TaughtMe @ Kilby Court, 741 S. 330 West, Tuesday July 15, 7 p.m. 24Tix.com

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Jeff Inman

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