Grouper - The Man Who Died in His Boat

Under her Grouper moniker, Portland musician Liz Harris offers another moving and frigidly pretty collection of songs.

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ALBUM: The Man Who Died in His Boat

ARTIST: Grouper



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.”

1. 6
Harris quietly builds the opaque texture present on the entire album through her purling vocal and howling keys. The song is an appropriate entrance to Boat, providing no easy access to record and reflecting its esoteric nature. The track is revealing in its honesty of the emotional hardship ahead.7.0
2. Vital
The album’s piece de resistance. This is a fantastic song with a hauntingly catchy melody. Ache inhabits every note Harris sings as the simple guitar line slides down the fretboard against her vocal. When Harris sings, “He’s the man who/ together in space/ searching my soul/ breaking it forever in me,” it shakes loose a calcified hurt that’s deep within. She barely mumbles the final verse—only able to string noises together—and it seems like the only way to articulate the perennial burden of the weary. 10.0
3. Cloud in Places
There’s an uplifting energy unique to this track. The guitar is fairly free of effects and strummed loudly over vocals that do the same. Melody is not only discernable, it’s highly present, and, pleasant. The song reaches into the firmament when Harris wails the high, somber notes of the chorus. 8.0
4. Being Her Shadow
A reverb-drenched and buried guitar line leads into doubled vocals, delicate and soaring. Harris’ harmonies are beautiful and fine-tuned, sounding like the Cocteau Twins on heavy barbiturates. Though the words she’s singing are hard to decipher, there’s just enough suggestion for the listener to imprint her own narrative, perhaps making the song more affecting. It’s the same principle as Sigur Ros’ (), sung in a fictional language. Grouper provides the general landscape—the suggestion of profound hurt—but the specific pain is individual.9.0
5. Cover the Long Way
A spectral chorus of Harris’ voice acts as Charon, and the dead man is in his boat is escorted across Styx. Forcefully strummed guitar clashes with the fragile vocal, and the disparate sounds—while evocative—are unnerving.7.8
6. Difference (Voices)
Rolls of thunder and a wavering, out of tune electric guitar anchor this song under Harris’ inscrutable vocal. Here, her voice is made into another component of the landscape, and the song sustains its mood. However, the song feels like an unfinished sketch of a really solid idea. 6.5
7. Vanishing Point
Chalky piano keys peak with feedback and echo through what could be an empty factory. The idea of a piano in such a large space is not liberating, but rather serves as a reminder of the smallness of the individual. The notes descend, decay, and break, finding their own vanishing point.7.0
8. The Man Who Died in His Boat
The title track sounds almost like a folk song. Though Grouper’s ghostly vocal quality remains, the guitar chords sway back and forth like a sea chantey from another realm. Harris’ multiple vocal lines fold together, creating the effect of rolling waves. The song builds in its final third, finally slowing just at its end, and it’s as if Harris is tackling the origin of the album’s title. She’s finally worked up the nerve to peer into the totem boat; at the song’s deflating end the listener realizes Harris has known all along there was only dreadfulness to be found. 8.0
9. Towers
Stray and sour acoustic guitar chords mesh to form a backdrop for an impressive vocal performance. It sounds as if she’s toying with assonance through the lyrics—“Let it rise/let it ride/ let it writhe.” Harris’ vocal quality is assured on this track (not something very common in a Grouper song) and it’s affecting. You remember again that the usual haze on her vocals is a choice, not a crutch. 8.2
10. STS
Muffled voices circle around a droning texture and mimic the rippling waters of the boat’s wake. STS is the longest track here and it’s also the sparsest. There’s a lot of room for the listener to recount the entire journey to this point. That’s challenging, as the wake churns up heaps of melancholia. The song dissolves into the beginning sounds of a mild rainstorm, the perfect backdrop for intense pondering.7.8
11. Living Room
The album ends with Grouper’s most “conventional” song to date. Comparable to certain Cat Power songs, Harris’ vocals are clear yet unsteady, and her guitar shines through a dusting of reverb. The lyrics here are quietly flaying as she details failed connection at a social gathering. It may seem low-stakes, but the internal turmoil is acute. The choice for Harris to starkly exist on the album’s closing track brings the album’s vulnerable introversion into a sharp and harrowing definition. 9.0
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