From the press release accompanying Grouper’s new (lost) album:
When I was a teenager the wreckage of a sailboat washed up on the shore of Agate Beach. The remains of the vessel weren’t removed for several days. I walked down with my father to peer inside the boat cabin. Maps, coffee cups and clothing were strewn around inside. I remember looking only brieﬂy, wilted by the feeling that I was violating some remnant of this man’s presence by witnessing the evidence of its failure. Later I read a story about him in the paper. It was impossible to know what had happened. The boat had never crashed or capsized. He had simply slipped off somehow, and the boat, like a riderless horse, eventually came back home.
The haunting image of that man slipping into the aquatic wasteland of the ocean, his boat faithfully completing its meaningless journey, is more or less the perfect analogue to Liz Harris’ music. Grouper is the sound the ceaseless specter of death, a figure casting long shadows on the mind in the middle of the night. Just look at the nail-biting apprehension on display on The Man Who Died in His Boat‘s cover.
But Harris’ project isn’t entirely about the daily gloom of existential meaninglessness. On her collaborative album with Tiny Vipers last year, the beguiling but rewarding Mirrorring, Harris solidified a couple of points about her aesthetic. First, the album suggested that Harris’ primary idiom isn’t gray washes of ambient prettiness but backwoods folk. At the same time, though, it demonstrated that obfuscation, not clarification, is her first order concern as an artist. She wants to bury, to distort, to stretch something so far out of proportion that it scarcely resembles what it, in fact, is. And though her recent work on the Violet Replacement project has tended toward ambient soundscapes, Grouper’s most character work, played at a proper pace and dusted free of its tape hiss and cavernous reverb, might actually sound recognizably folky.
To that end, The Man Who Died on His Boat sits comfortably next to Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. Evidently, the two albums were recorded at the same time, so it’s no surprise that the lonesome twang of Harris’ guitar on the achingly pretty “Cover the Long Way” and “Vital” sound similar to past gems like “Heavy Water/I’d Rather be Sleeping” and “We’ve All Gone to Sleep.” But to suggest, though, that these songs function in any way like clear-eyed folk is misleading. The title track, a spare acoustic number, is marked by the delicate balance between Harris’ fragile voice and the quietly insistent strum of her guitar. At times, the steady beat of the guitar seems to carry the note directly from her mouth into the chilliest corners of the mix. The barely-there “Difference (voices)” bridges the gap between the record’s most cleanly structured songs and its ambient experiments. There are recognizable notes plucked on the over-amped guitar, but they are quickly swallowed up by foggy sheets of vaguely pulsating noise. The strictly noise pieces, particularly the haunting closer “STS,” contain enough trace elements of recognizable musical composition that you lean closer, trying to discern the source of Harris’ alien sound.
When Grouper played the Guggenheim last April, Harris sat on a small carpeted stage at the base of Wright’s emblematic staircase. That is, she literally sat on a swatch of carpet on the stage. The audience, too, sat on the carpeted floor. For comparison sake, Julianna Barwick, who was playing a double bill with Harris, stood during her set. The audience stood as well. This seems significant to me. Barwick’s celestial exaltation demands that you stand, that you offer yourself to a grand wash of melody. Grouper’s music, quiet and sad without ever quite being dour, will never inspire an audience to its feet in reverential splendor. But it will allow you to peek into the mysterious boat of a dead man just so long as you sit quietly and listen.
Rating: 7.5 / 10