By Jacob Bender
Jacob Bender recently completed a Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa. He has previously published in Dialogue, Sunstone, Peculiar Pages, West Trade Review, and WLN, and has articles forthcoming in American Indian Quarterly and Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association.
The veteran indie-trio Low, when they are noted at all, are typically noted for two points: 1) for being “that slow, quiet band” that produces minimalist music at a deliberate pace and hushed volume; and 2) that the husband and wife at the band’s core are practicing Mormons. Point one has not been strictly true for about five albums now, though the band’s slow embrasure of the distortion pedal and amplifier has not apparently harmed their minimalist ethos (nor their critical love or the devotion of their cult following). Point two tends to come up only in passing, to explain such oblique lines as “Oh speak to me/Adam and Eve” from the song “Missouri,” off their 1999 album Secret Name; or “You want religion, you want assurance/A resurrection, some kind of purpose,” from the song “DJ” (the closer on their 2015 album Ones and Sixes).1 But these discreet lds references are few and scattered across their prolific, 20-plus-year discography. And though bandleader Alan Sparhawk has stated in interviews that he doesn’t differentiate between his spirituality and his art, Low is not a proselyting group (no pass-along cards are to be found at their shows). Few would classify Low as a “Mormon band,” or even as “a band with Mormons in it.”
But when I discovered Low, a strange thing happened. They stole into my Sabbath rotation so often that I would sometimes feel as strange listening to them on a weekday as I would listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In the days when I began to wonder what genuinely sublime lds art would be like—art that somehow eschewed easy sentimentality and banality (all the more offensive in its inoffensiveness)—I realized that Low had beaten me there—beaten us all there—by two solid decades. Low long ago mastered what the rest of us aspire to.
It’s not what they sing, but how: Legend has it that the neo-impressionist painter Paul Signac once said, “The anarchist artist is not the one who creates anarchist paintings.” That is, it’s not the painting’s content that renders it revolutionary, but its form; e.g. some Soviet propagandist mural done in the Greco-Roman style may be radical in its politics, yet utterly traditional in its form. Similarly, a Mormon artist may produce art that is “Mormon” in content yet be devoid of a Mormon spiritual ethos. Hence we have Michael McLean’s The Forgotten Carols in the mawkish style of Broadway musicals, a genre so formulaic that even the hacks behind South Park were able to ape it to Tony-sweeping effect in The Book of Mormon musical.2 McClean, I maintain, is Signac’s faux-anarchist, lds in content but not form; but Low, while only rarely lds in content, is distinctly lds in a form that Trey and Matt couldn’t conceive of copying.
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote, “I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.” But when there are long gaps between testimonies on Fast Sundays, the overwhelming feeling in the congregation is one of discomfort, as though we were failing in our duties, failing the Spirit, as though the silence itself could never be a testimony.
However, the recent trend in the missionary program has been toward less speaking, fewer discussions. “Preach the gospel; and if necessary, use words,” Elder Holland said, quoting St. Francis of Assisi. lds missionaries proselyte with the word-filled Book of Mormon, but they do so in hopes not that the potential converts will be convinced by well-worded treatises, but rather be converted by a manifestation of the Holy Spirit that accompanies these words—the “unspeakable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15; D&C 121:26) that “maketh intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). In short, in Mormonism, the Spirit is a thing outside discourse, beyond words, beyond utterance, that exists in the silent spaces where words fail to mean. The Spirit is not a hot emotional surge or a sudden outburst—the Spirit may produce these things, but it is not these things. The best missionaries understand that their words must get out of the Spirit’s way.
Mormons, unlike many Christian denominations, are not Biblical absolutists (or at least we’re not supposed to be). We believe the Bible only insofar “as it is translated correctly,” implying that its words often fail to transmit meaning accurately—as do all words, for that matter. Our own Book of Mormon is filled with laments of the inadequacy of language, of “our weakness in writing,” of how words cannot communicate even “a hundredth part,” of the “imperfections” inherent in this (or any) text. “Neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking,” says Nephi, “for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost . . . it carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men” (2 Nephi 33:1), clearly delineating how Spirit is often communicated in spite of words, not because of them. And this Spirit is a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) that often requires complete silence to be detected—though “often times it maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest” (D&C 85:6) and grows in amplification to overpower all else. Much like the mid-aughts music of Low, when they finally turned the amplifiers all the way up.
In the days before CDs, Bluetooth, and auxiliary jacks became standard in car dashboards, I recall having to hit the seek button on the cassette-deck of my parent’s 1996 Ford Taurus in order to find the next song; the player would search for the next music-devoid space on the tape and assume that that was the space between songs. This feature, primitive though it may appear to us now, actually worked quite reliably—except with the Tab Choir cassette that was de rigueur for Sundays in our house. “O Divine Redeemer” was so full of silent lulls that if you tried to fast-forward through it, the tape player would stop repeatedly. Eventually I gave up and just listened to the song. And soon I began to understand the silences as features, not bugs. The silences started to become sacred to me—integral to the sublimity of the song. Years later, during the lowest point of my mission (my companion and I were scarcely on speaking terms and our contact list had collapsed), I put “O Divine Redeemer” on one evening and realized that those silences were the groanings beyond utterance, the expansiveness of eternity, the home of the Holy Spirit. In that moment, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir ceased being mere Sunday background music for me and became “headphone music,” an all-engulfing experience unto itself.
Low embraces silence in both music and word. In fact, on their very first album (1993’s I Could Live In Hope) the lead song, “Words,” could be seen as a sort of mission statement. The arrangement is simple to the point of austerity. Lyrics make up very little of the song—the verses communicate a mood more than a meaning. The most discernible line is “too many words/too many words.” The chorus line, “And I can hear ‘em . . . ,” acknowledges the presence of those words but doesn’t ascribe any meaning to them, rendering them transparent.
In the “Words” video, the band members stand far apart in a large room playing their instruments as the camera rolls slowly from one to the other. Their performance is interspliced with shots of them in a blizzard, pushing a canoe over a frozen Lake Superior—the spaces becoming cosmic.
It’s the song that fills the empty spaces between the band members, just as the notes fill the unbridgeable gap between word and meaning, just as the silences bridge the gaps between the notes. Silence is as integral to Low’s songs as the instrumentation. It is, in fact, where Low’s music actually lies.
Low’s Mormonism and minimalism go hand in hand (and not just for the handy alliteration). It is specifically their minimalism, their fearlessness in embracing the silences between notes, that allows them to create a space for the things that can’t be said, that can’t be represented—the “unspeakable” thing outside discourse that is most responsible for Mormon spiritual conversion. Low does not fear the silence; for them it is not nihilistic void,3 but the space where religious experience lies
At his release, a singles-ward bishop of mine lamented his return to a family ward. “You don’t know how much I’ve appreciated it, how much I’ve treasured it beyond riches, to sit in actual, complete silence during the passing of the sacrament,” he said. When I returned to a family ward myself, I understood what he meant: the ceaseless stirring of children, muffled infant cries, adults coughing, and the shuffling of feet—all conspire against silence. Like a John Cage piece, the passing of the sacrament calls attention to how little silence there really is.
As I made my report to the stake high council at the end of my mission, I realized for one hyper-aware moment that not a single person in the room could actually understand what those two years had been for me—what I had gone through, what I had felt, what I had seen—no matter what words I used. For that matter, I had no clue what their missions had been like, either. They were as opaque to me as I was to them. But this did not sadden me; there was no melancholy in that moment. Though the space between us was unbridgeable, it was also full. We were all sharing that silent space together.
- Though the way that stanza finishes with “I ain’t your DJ, you’ve gotta shake that” indicates that there are some teeth to their faith.
- Their showstopper “I Believe” could, with only a few slightly less ironic lyric changes—and not even that many—be sung unironically by real missionaries.
- Low often gets called a melancholy band—understandably so, the vast majority of us can’t conceive of such slow, minimalistic music without assuming that it must be rooted in despair. (Alan Sparhawk’s history of mental illness and depression hasn’t helped with that view, either.) Nevertheless, I’ve been to a few Low shows in my time, and I can testify that few musicians seem to experience as much sheer joy as Alan Sparhawk does on stage. “Little Drummer Boy” is my least favorite carol, but once upon a December garage show I beheld him belt the song out with such pure, guileless conviction that it not only became tolerable but transcendent. It is a great fallacy to assume Low is sad, that the silences are empty—they are not empty but full.
- Here is an introductory playlist—all songs of which can, as of this printing, be found on Spotify:
Words (I Could Live in Hope, 1994)
Violence (Long Division, 1995)
Over the Ocean (The Curtain Hits the Cast, 1996)
Condescend (Songs for a Dead Pilot EP, 1997)
Starfire (Secret Name, 1999)
Two-Step (Secret Name, 1999)
Weight of Water (Secret Name, 1999)
Missouri (Secret Name, 1999)
Just Like Christmas (Christmas EP, 1999)
If You Were Born Today (Christmas EP, 1999)
July (Things We Lost in the Fire, 2001)
Closer (Things We Lost in the Fire, 2001)
In Metal (Things We Lost in the Fire, 2001)
The Lamb (Trust, 2002)
Point of Disgust (Trust, 2002)
Shots and Ladders (Trust, 2002)
Monkey (The Great Destroyer, 2005)
Silver Rider (The Great Destroyer, 2005)
When I Go Deaf (The Great Destroyer, 2005)
Death of a Salesman (The Great Destroyer, 2005)
In Silence (Drums and Guns, 2007)
Murderer (Drums and Guns, 2007)
Your Violent Past (Drums and Guns, 2007)
$20 (C’mon, 2011)
Nothing But Heart (C’mon, 2011)
Plastic Cup (The Invisible Way, 2013)
So Blue (The Invisible Way, 2013)
Some Holy Ghost (The Invisible Way, 2013)
Just Make It Stop (The Invisible Way, 2013)
Landslide (Ones and Sixes, 2015)
DJ (Ones and Sixes, 2015)
Some Hearts (At Christmas Time, 2016)