ALBUM: The Man Who Died in His Boat
Liz Harris has been making music as Grouper for nearly a decade now, though much of her output reflects moods within a fairly narrow spectrum. Many Grouper songs wouldn’t be out of place on any one of her albums. This is not to say Grouper is an act of a singular vision; in fact, it’s startling just how nuanced the emotions expressed within the confined space of her music are. Her early years were spent among a neo-Christian commune called The Group (its members named “Groupers”), yet the music she makes often reflects the opposite sense—it’s oddly isolating. Perhaps that’s exactly what happens when the sense of self is subjugated through enforced communion. The scarcity of anything terrestrial in her work is unsettling, and elicits an unnamable panging. Only a few threads of traditional instrumentation tether The Man Who Died in His Boat to a knowable world. Its songs form an immersive and achingly pensive milieu.
Grouper’s music draws obvious comparisons to Julianna Barwick or a morose Julia Holter, but a more apt similarity is to Phil Elverum’s Mount Eerie. In addition to logistics—both acts are based in the Pacific Northwest and include frequent images of its landscape in their respective music—both revolve around drowsily delivered vocals to enforce the melancholic nature of existing in a particular environment. Moreover, when their voices do cut through the perpetual fog of their own songwriting, it’s something to behold—much like a day of sun in the gloomy rainy season(s) in which they live. The music they make just feels appropriate for the region; it’s the same line of reasoning as the early-aughts emergence of atmospheric black metal in the same territory.
Of all Harris’ work, Boat and the outstanding Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill are especially of the same ilk. Like Deer, the songs on Boat largely feature acoustic guitar and Harris’ airy voice, both maxed out with hazy reverb. Suitably, it’s not surprising to learn that Harris recorded the songs for this record in 2008, the same time as Deer. She is a prolific artist—in addition to Grouper’s output, she’s collaborated with many other musicians (including Xiu Xiu and the superb Raum project with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma)—so the choice to release an “old” batch of songs is interesting. Harris has said she experienced a debilitating depression soon after the Deer/Boat sessions and shelved this album until recently. She’s acknowledged both albums as “emotional blood-letting,” and that cathartic mood is certainly reflected in Boat’s compositions. The reason to go back is that something has not finished being purged. The focus of both albums, more so than anything else she’s done, is on the melody within the song; it’s far removed from the droning harshness of earlier works like Cover the Windows and the Walls. Harris has called herself a “grouper of sounds” instead of a musician, but Boat’s stunning second track “Vital” is a testament against that. The song—a lovely complement to Deer’s own second track, “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping”—displays a remarkable pop sensibility and a hook as catchy as anything on modern radio, albeit in a “45 slowed to 33 ½ rpm” kind of way.
What separates this album from Dead Deer, and ultimately makes it not as astonishing, is the singularity of its mood. Boat is sustained forlorn beauty, and the emotional demand of the listener is significant. Though Harris’ hushed vocals are often indecipherable, they still feel anguished. And when a weighty utterance does push through the murk—such as in “Living Room,” “Busy pretending to relate/ it’s getting harder and harder to fake/acting like everything’s in its place”—its effect is arresting. That happens frequently. One can only hover above the album’s ennui for so long before becoming mired; the abyss gazes also, you know? The album’s dedication to its own theme is its biggest hitch, but, ultimately, Boat isn’t about breadth, it’s about absolution. –- Michael McDermit
“I’m looking for the place where the spirit meets the skin.”