The incomprehensible loss of Mimi Parker.
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As a drummer and vocalist, Mimi Parker knew how to give a song exactly what it needed. Listen to her playing with just a cymbal and snare drum in 1996. It lacks for nothing. Parker used those elements to create a massive sense of space in Low, the band she co-founded in 1993 with her husband, vocalist/guitarist Alan Sparhawk. Art is all about choices, what to leave in, what to leave out. Parker chose masterfully.
Low’s songs will care for you but will never sugarcoat what life is. Joy and agony are enmeshed. Parker and Sparhawk reached for a fuller grasp of the human experience in all its depths, and through all that profound struggle their music always feels rooted in frankness and practicality. On “Laser Beam,” from the 2001 album Things We Lost In The Fire, Parker turns in a show-stopping lead vocal performance. She’s explained that the song was about growing up with an alcoholic father, specifically a night where a cop maced her dad in front of her. The song doesn’t flinch away from the experience, but somehow turns it into something beautiful enough to transport you somewhere else entirely. The chorus—”I need your grace alone”—soars above this wretched scene without necessarily trying to shield you from it.
Parker was only 55 years old when she died this past Saturday. She deserved so many good years ahead, and the loss feels incomprehensibly cruel. Low was almost 30 years into an extraordinary body of work, and had so much more to give. The band’s last two albums, Hey What and Double Negative, were celebrated as career highlights. That said, most of their other 11 albums are every bit as good. And as much as people admired the band’s artistic commitment, they also admired how Parker and Sparhawk carried themselves as people and as career musicians.
When they played live, their decency, gratitude, and humility always gave the shows a sense of raw connection. These shows drew in fans of varied ages and tastes, a welcome meeting point of different niches. I saw them in 2009 at the High Noon for the Forward Festival, two other times at the High Noon (2015, 2018), once at the Majestic (2014), once at the Shitty Barn (2014). The latter two shows featured two full sets, no opener—just an incredible gift of an experience. I missed their last stop at the High Noon this July, and Low canceled a planned opening slot for Death Cab For Cutie at the Sylvee as Parker underwent treatment for ovarian cancer.
For a long time it felt like Low was always going to be there, not so far away in Duluth, reliably getting through Madison every few years, more often when we were lucky. If they could put out something as great as Hey What last year, there was every reason to believe they’d keep putting out standard-setting recorded work for years to come. The production choices might shift dramatically from one album to the next. It worked because the songs were always there. The voices were always there. My god, those voices, those beautiful aching harmonies that could only be Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk, only growing more rich and rugged with the years. The craft was always there, the extraordinary power and control that belied the easy categorization of Low as a quiet and delicate band. It’s a line that Sparhawk, not Parker, sings, but nothing explains Low to me like a line from “Clarence White,” on 2013’s The Invisible Way: “You think it’s pretty, but I am a raging river.”
They brought us the raging river, they brought us grace. A band powerful enough to do that comes to feel like an immovable part of the universe. A world without Mimi Parker is hard to face, and yet Low’s music is always honest about the fact that we live in a world where such devastating losses happen. Parker gave us all that we could ask of a musician, and so much more.