A welcome rarity today at TMW,TMW; I'm tackling "Sleep at the Bottom" at the request of a reader, the redoubtable Robert P. Inverarity of the fine Fragments of a Cale Season oeuvreblog. He mentions that this track is pretty atypical for the band, as "Musically, it seems to lack the creeping malevolence that marks a lot of their catalog, though the lyrics do seem a bit sinister." I'm not sure how much he knows about the song, but there's definitely a reason for the difference we both hear in this one: "Sleep at the Bottom" is a spur of the moment collaboration with members of Piano Magic and Transient Waves, written on the spot.
The latter band are described on allmusic as existing "on the borderline between ambient electronica and trippy psychedelia without tipping too far into either direction," and the quixotic Piano Magic get the following description: "The lone thread running through Piano Magic's records, aside from Johnson's presence, is a sense of wistfulness. Johnson has explained his desire to soundtrack memories, and with that, Piano Magic has found their niche." Two acts, then, that certainly seem as if they'd be sympathetic enough to Low's sound (and vice versa) to make a good collaboration.
And yet, while "Sleep at the Bottom" is definitely a good song I can't help hearing more Low than anything here. Lauren from Transient Waves presumably provided at least some of the guitar here (the echoing, searching lead that makes the middle eight so stunning is her, I'd imagine) but what the various personnel from Piano Magic provided I'm not sure. That steady, calming bass pulse that runs throughout the song is, if not Zak Sally, at least very Sally-esque, and the spare kettle drum and snare hits that softly guide the track forward certainly sound like Mimi. The only vocals I can discern are Alan and Mimi's. Given Transient Waves' low profile and the ever shifting, protean sound of Piano Magic maybe what "Sleep at the Bottom" really reveals is how sympatico these three bands were in 1998. Low had never even met Lauren before, and yet the two brief accounts Alan gives of the song (from the box set and the old song backgrounds page) not only emphasize the on a whim nature of the collaboration but also make the whole thing sound very easy and natural. Low were in London, these other guys were around, bam - a song (and a single, on Rocket Girl records).
But while most of the parts I can put my finger on sound like Low, the result is definitely different. Robert's right to note that the music at least avoids the sharply focused menace Low usually carry with them; what's here is too drifting and spacey to give Alan and Mimi's softly falsetto voices any real bite. I don't mean that as a complaint, mind you; the song is successful enough I kind of wish this outfit had recorded a full album, or at least an EP (like the Low/Spring Heel Jack one, which I am still eager to track down; if Amazon.ca didn't offer it starting at $32 I'd have it by now...). The lyrics are a cipher, mostly just Alan and Mimi repeating "This life" with something that might be serenity, or foreboding, or regret. The rest happens near the beginning, and is rather hard to parse:
You want to sleep on the bottom
You want to look up and see them shout
You want to sleep on the bottom
You want your voice in this life to
But as Robert notes, there's definitely something characteristic of Low's typical uneasiness here, from the title phrase on down (which evokes for me at least the notion of "sleeping with the fishes"). Those concerns are made weightless, however, by the interplay of gauzy guitars and the too-fast-for-dub bass line; in addition to the way Low attributes any unseemly/unsettling desires or concerns to an inchoate "you" (something, now that I think about, that they do a lot; the band definitely has more direct address than most), the seamless but unique backing of the three acts together has everything to do with making "Sleep at the Bottom" as great, and atypical, as it is.