In 2017, Danish quintet Lowly released their debut album Heba, an album that displayed an impressive maturity with deeper-than-on-the-surface songwriting and remarkable vocal performance, as well as a clear affinity for In Rainbows and King of Limbs-era Radiohead jittery percussion over rich soundscapes. After such a strong start, some might worry about the possibility of the band falling victim to the sophomore slump. Lowly’s response to avoid this clichéd misstep was to amplify the beauty inherent in their songwriting and improve upon their first record.
The influences that presented themselves on Heba are still present on Hifalutin — artists like the previously mentioned Radiohead, as well as Björk and Susanne Sundfør all come to mind. The components that were most prominent on their debut, Nanna Schannong and Soffie Viemose’s entrancing vocals and Steffen Lundtoft’s drums, also return on this album. On Hifalutin, Lowly turn towards more natural sounds, pianos and acoustic guitars being more central than ever, to source their atmospheric songs. These steps forward, keeping the past in tow, inform the group’s protean song-structures and luscious ambiance, and make Lowly’s brand of dreamy pop singular, and difficult to definitively categorise.
A title like Hifalutin might turn some people off, the negative connotations of the word might lead listeners to assume a certain level of pretence or a pretentious postmodern statement on pretence. Luckily, the band seems both fully aware of the oxymoronic effect of their album’s title and never allows for anything on the album to feel pretentious.
The album starts off incredibly strong — the run of songs from pristine opener “go for a walk” to the first of three short interlude tracks, “i”, are 20 minutes of intricately woven post-pop. Lowly are at their best when creating unpredictable, almost entropic songs with elements that swell and contract. The tribute to the late Dr. Hawking, “stephen”, is quick to find an undeniable groove, fit with crisp percussion, and builds like an ascending rocket. Halfway through the song, you escape the atmosphere, and the floating sensation of zero-gravity takes over until the track comes to a close. This airiness leads well into the following track “baglaens”, that showcases one of the many brilliant vocal performances by Schannong on the album. Even with some of the anxious drum tracks and synth interjections that run throughout Hifalutin, everything feels like it has been organically composed. Very little on the album feels like it is being forced, and the space Lowly work into their songs feels both earned and welcome.
The gorgeous, but brief “out beyond” flows perfectly into the centrepiece of the album, the six-minute odyssey, “children”. The build-up and eventual eruption on the track is absolutely exhilarating — the density of the vocal harmonies as they ride the accelerating drums and synthesizers towards exaltation makes for a terrific musical climax.
“12:36” begins with a guitar riff and synth chord that would not be out of place on a Beach House album, and comes alive as additional pieces are added to the instrumental that. The album closer, “wonder” demonstrates the best of what Lowly can do, as the ethereal track morphs with the introduction of Lundtoft’s drums as they pierce themselves into the mix. The track then breathes in and out through a section of acoustic reprieve, a burst of maximalist instrumentation, and the inevitable denouement of delicate vocal harmonies atop a celestial sonic base.
While there is a wealth of fantastic on this album, the 53-minute runtime can make the album as a whole feel a little overwrought. A song like “in the hearts” feels a little outside of the rest of the album — the utilisation of autotune at the forefront feels like experimentation without any real thematic purpose, and the structure of the song is one of the most conventional on Hifalutin, making for a bit of a drowsy, one-note experience. Lowly does so much right on the album that when tracks don’t quite meet the mark of the others on the record, it stands out. For example, when some of the shorter songs on the album, like “delicate delegates” and “selver”, which both run under three minutes, offer such simplistic elegance, the inclusion of the minute and a half long “ii” as a quick reincorporation of the synthetic drum beat introduced in “i” feels unnecessary.
Lowly seems primed to release a quintessential album, and while Hifalutin doesn’t quite have the succinctness to garner that label, it is an adventurous, striking indie-pop album that showcases an up-and-coming, fresh voice in a genre that seems to have gone stale — especially with a decent pair of headphones, Hifalutin has a way of enticing a listener to return and seek out all of its hidden intricacies; all of the subtle layers that the band use to construct their lovely, unpredictable sonic expanses.