Low’s Things We Lost in the Fire is a bittersweet reminder that love is all we have
Original release date: 22 January, 2001
The title of Low’s fifth studio album, Things We Lost in the Fire, is taken from one of the record’s concluding tracks, Closer. The song finds lead vocalist Alan Sparhawk singing about love persevering through a “dark, raging sea”. The mood is one of graceful stillness, and over haunting, funereal strings, Sparhawk intones: “Things we lost in the fire/ How’d we ever get by?/ Words will never take back.”
“It’s a love song,” said Sparhawk, talking through his band’s career-defining album on the Life of the Record podcast in 2021. “It’s asking, ‘Look what we’ve been through, is that not the substance of who we are together?’ Look what we survived, look what we helped each other through, look what we made. That, for me, is the substance of love, that’s the substance of eternal life.”
This idea of complicated, all-encompassing love anchors the record. The love between Sparhawk and his wife, Low drummer Mimi Parker – both as partners and creative collaborators. The love of their then newborn child. Love that can endure the ravages of time. Of course, the special relationship between Sparhawk and Parker has always sustained the mesmerising spell the band cast. But the weight and meaning of their bond has never felt so visceral, so deep, as it does on Things We Lost in the Fire. This feeling has only been intensified by Parker’s untimely death, in November 2022, news of which Sparhawk shared on Instagram: “Keep her name close and sacred… Love is indeed the most important thing.”
A heartbreaking poignancy hangs over the record now. Not only in light of Parker’s passing, but because Low’s pursuit of eternal love has stood the test of time to render them one of their generation’s most enduring bands. Though their slowcore sound has shapeshifted throughout their career, Things We Lost in the Fire remains their definitive work, making good on Sparhawk’s revelation of their M.O. being “slow, quiet, sometimes melancholy, and, we hope, sometimes pretty”. Released in 2001 and produced by Steve Albini, the album captures the brutal nature of mortality – but also the endless possibilities to create beauty during our short period here.
Appearing on an episode of the Sheroes podcast in January 2022 (in which she revealed that she had been diagnosed with cancer), Parker talked about the fact that she and Sparhawk were “a perfect storm” and how their music was a way of “understanding Alan’s chaos and meshing [it] with my calmness”. This seemingly telepathic understanding is transmitted through the reverb-washed guitar sound, spacious drumming and stark, beautiful harmonies that give their music its intimate quality. “Alan knew if we were going to be in a band together it would have to appeal to me. I was more introverted, a little quiet, looking for beautiful, melodic things.”
Things We Lost in the Fire is undoubtedly beautiful and melodic, but it’s also desolate and unsettling. The album saw the band casting a wider sonic net, experimenting with ambient textures and adding layers of piano and brass instruments to create a darker, more spiritual universe. Album highlight Laser Beam is hardly there at all; a wisp of a song as Parker’s bewitching vocals recount a memory of her alcoholic father being pepper-sprayed by a policeman when she was a child. Her voice drifts across the surface with quiet, breathtaking intensity. On Embrace, a moving song about the experience of childbirth, Parker sings, “I fell down the stairs/ I wished I were dead.” Single Dinosaur Act – with its crunchy guitars, legato horns and tinny snare drum – even saw them nearly rocking out (people regularly misinterpreted it as “the dinosaur egg song”).
But within all the turbulence, Parker’s search for tranquillity is triumphant, with closing track In Metal finding resolution. She wrote the song about her and Sparhawk’s first child, Hollis (the high-pitched noises you can hear throughout the track are Hollis’ coos). She uses the practice of bronzing a baby’s shoes as a metaphor for that sense of mortal vulnerability you feel as you hold your first child and your mind floods with hopes, fears and the inevitability of ageing. “Partly hate to see you grow,” she harmonises over bare acoustic guitar strums. “And just like your baby shoes/ Wish I could keep your little body/ In metal.”
Album standout Sunflower epitomises these duelling forces at play, beginning with the darkest imagery (“When they found your body/ Giant X’s on your eyes”) before blooming in the light. “Every time I sing it,” Sparhawk explained on Life of the Record, “I’m sort of picturing… how someone would speak who is either a ghost or who is in love with someone who is now gone, but you’re still one.”
Things We Lost in the Fire is a document of everything Sparhawk and Parker had survived, together; a collection of songs that immortalise the band’s singular vision, powered by a once-in-a-lifetime relationship. And though Things We Lost in the Fire is a cruel reminder of the inescapable march of time, in each stride lies a tiny miracle – the everlasting power of love.