Liz Harris’ music is a sedative for a down-and-out soul. Despite regular troubles, pockets of turbulence and lost love, Grouper reminds us that true beauty can never fade — it still lives among the ruins. Ruins are all around us — the deep scars left over from emotional warfare never want to leave us alone, and in the physical world the ancient, moss-lined stone of an abandoned abbey seems to suggest an abandoned faith. The ruins are all-too-real wounds that we suffer as we travel down the road of life. “Ruins” finds Harris in an ever more thoughtful mood. The songs on the album have developed deep roots that have the capacity to touch stone-cold hearts; they are even more sensitive than before, but they still come from that same otherworldly place. Like sand held in a palm, they seep slowly out of reality, and they end up in a world of sunken thoughts that no one can ever reach.
Recorded in Aljezur, Portugal in 2011, “Ruins” is a quiet record (Harris only used a portable 4-track, a stereo mic and a piano), but look under the surface and it oozes with uncertainty. The music is a mirror that looks out onto the dazed, beautiful and yet incredibly fragile face of life and its encounters. The ambient songs that have for so long been clouded in a deep well of endless reverb and delay have now largely disappeared. The piano has spread the songs out in the open, not just peeling but stripping away the tonal layers that used to surround the music. Because of the piano, the songs feel vulnerable, susceptible to Harris’ voice as it flutters lightly in the air. And yet “Ruins” has a vague sadness, too. It bleeds into the beauty of Harris’ world, like a serene sunset stroll along the beach, but with a pod of stranded, dying whales stuck on the shoreline. Dehydration claims its victim. “Ruins” is, in one sense, trapped by its past. The music is close to deliberate dehydration, as if it were close to giving up the fight. It’s lyrically suffocating, its lungs crushed under the weight of its emotions.
Opener “Made of Metal” has a thumping drum that reverberates with every hit, seeming to conjure something out from behind the veil. Percussion is usually a battle-cry, masked by smashing cymbals and pounding drums, but Grouper’s is soft, muffled and rounded in its tone; it’s introverted, despite the rise in volume. The sometimes eerie sound of guitar washed through with a heavy, wet reverb has disappeared, almost as if it were never there to begin with. But this new, piano-based method may just be the maturing sound of Grouper. The soft, repeated melodies carry currents of warmth, and you can easily imagine them coming out of Harris’ guitar on a slab of reverb. The clearer tone has helped to clear the air. Her voice barely rises above a whisper, sitting alongside the piano’s new-found clarity and its whisper of melancholia. The songs are tinted with a tiny drop of disappointment and there’s a subtle longing in the way that she sings. The piano’s tone seems to favour the shadows, straying into the darkness. Maybe, due to its moonlit tone, it can never really come into the full vitality of the light, but the piano is used as an instrument of light. It takes the vocal out of despair and soothes it until it can recover and move on. Those walks really help.
These are songs that lie in their original state, a true feeling captured. And an authentic feeling produces authentic music. Closer “Made of Air” breaks the mould and is more of a drifting, ambient track. It throbs with a warm bass and a lighter harmony. Grouper has chosen a different instrument, but the deep layers of fuzz and distortion are still here — the same wall of fuzz coats and dusts the lost abbeys and the deserted ghost towns of yesteryear with its furry, moss-like texture, and the distortion is the slanting of a lost mind. Harris is inviting you to walk with her, through the ruins.
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Photo by Jason Bokros