As listeners we’ve become so accustomed to the constant influx of new music that we can often times lose focus of the contextual consequence intrinsic to the development of individual artists. In this day and age, once we’ve heard something new, it’s now instantly and irretrievably old. And even if it’s of a certain objective merit, our collective instinct to deify progression can cloud qualitative perspective. Truth is, artists across all mediums tend to work in fits of inspiration, developing periods of rewarding artistic impulse alongside works of misplaced ambition or potentially compromised integrity. Glimpsed from a broader view, however, are those same eras, once curious or underwhelming as individual experiences, revealed simply as periods of transition for the more dedicated practitioners.
Grouper’s Liz Harris seems to be emerging from a similar stretch of creative stasis. It’s been nearly two years since the release of her last album, the structurally ambitious double-album AIA : Alien Observer/Dream Loss, an evocative document, which, for all its enveloping grandeur, felt a little diffuse and intangible as an actual listening experience. Standout moments certainly emerged from its cloudy canopy of guitar sustain, analog drone and precarious amplifier ambiance, but even at thirteen tracks and almost 80 minutes in length, it played as a mostly reconciliatory effort for Harris, particularly coming off her mesmerizing 2008 breakthrough, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill.
It remains to be seen where Harris takes the Grouper aesthetic in coming years, but the Dead Deer era–which also birthed a wonderful collaborative split with Roy Montgomery–has held up remarkably well in the interim. So much so that we now have The Man Who Died in His Boat, a collection of material Harris recorded alongside Dead Deer that for whatever reason never made it onto a proper release. In a sense it feels like a more appropriate follow-up to Dead Deer than AIA, bridging as it does the acoustic-séance vibe of the former while teasing out the brooding tension of the latter. To her considerable credit, however, Man Who Died never comes across as a slapdash compendium of outtakes or half-formed ideas. This is an impressive standalone effort in its own right, and further proof that Harris remains one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary experimental music.
And it’s that voice which buoys Harris’s best music. I’d say at this point Harris is slightly more suited to the (for lack of a better word) dream pop side of the stylistic spectrum than the full-on ambient/drone excursions which make up the majority of AIA. With that being said, her music truly excels when she braids the two approaches into a single experience, as she expertly does across Man Who Died’s carefully curated song cycle. After a brief swell of introductory drone, Harris’s angelic, near-wordless vocals surface atop a cyclical acoustic chord progression immediately reminiscent of Dead Deer, and as “Vital” continues to gather weight from its own inertia, it develops an melancholy dimension appropriate to Harris’s conceptualization of not only this collection, but of the Grouper project in total.
These songs may have been inspired in part by an experience from Harris’s childhood wherein she and her father stumbled upon a deserted boat whose captain disappeared under mysterious circumstances, but this music is less nostalgic than it is elegiac. “Cloud in Places”–one of Harris’s best and most immediate songs to date–laces a breathy vocal melody amidst rudimentary strumming, the sense of yearning created through its uneasy harmony as suitable to soundtrack a moment of emotional acquiescence as an In Memoriam tribute. Harris gets considerable mileage out of her narrow instrumental set-up, her ability to coax tangible feeling from analog elements a trait of considerable talent. Even the record’s brief forays into mostly atmospheric terrain evidence a touch of heightened aural sensitivity. “Difference (Voices)” layers radiant reverberations atop a swollen drone, while Harris distends her vocals across the surface of the track, blanketing the piece without sacrificing its wintery chill. “Vanishing Point”, meanwhile, pierces its backdrop of tape hiss with sonar-sounding tones, intricately detailing what is essentially an interlude.
It’s Harris’ attention to detail that has thus far helped this late-aughts era of Grouper productivity standout amidst not only her catalogue but also that of her contemporaries. But what’s nice about The Man Who Died in His Boat is that it works just as well as a companion piece to Dead Deer as it does as its own statement of purpose. Plus, it affirms that Dead Deer wasn’t an anomaly amongst a discography that leans toward the ephemeral. A moment of clarity, perhaps, but a moment of such sustained inspiration that one can’t help but believe that another may soon be set to materialize. [SC]