The Man Who Died In His Boat
Nick Torsell, February 26, 2013
was introduced to Grouper, real name Liz Harris, in the worst way possible. It was at a rock venue opening for Animal Collective where the ceilings were too high, the bars were too well lit, and the audience was waiting for the next band. She played her slow, steady hymns to the backs of heads, the subtle lilt of her voice lost in the din of others’ conversation. There was something vital in the messy beauty of her music, and I went home not thinking of the band I came to see, but the quiet concentration of the woman playing guitar by herself on stage. Almost four years later, Harris’ new album, The Man Who Died In His Boat, featuring unreleased material recorded in 2008, will be released on Kranky.
In a profile in the December 2011 issue of The Wire, Harris expresses an affinity for religious music, “The kind that sounds as though you are really calling out for something to come and save you.” That longing is expressed in Harris’ music, which is melancholic, but not defeated. Harris’ voice surfaces above droning guitars, occasionally revealing obscured lyrics that work more like sighed confessions. There’s a certain intimacy to her vocals, like you’re overhearing someone on the phone with a close friend. You almost feel like you’re intruding. On The Man Who Died In His Boat, the lyrics are shrouded in echo and reverb for most of the album, until you get to the third last track “Towers.” Here the gauze is removed, and her voice begins to shape and take on meaning. The break appears later in the track, a surprisingly bright guitar builds to a staccato climax, she pleads, “Let it out.” This moment props up the entire album, everything builds to here, and then slowly climbs downward.
Looking back on Harris’ work since her debut album Way Their Crept in 2005, there’s a narrative restlessness. Harris doesn’t work sequentially; she picks up work at different times and then leaves them to follow other paths. Her previous two albums, A I A: Alien Observer and A I A: Dream Loss came together after amassing a couple of year’s worth of material and then finally stitching the reworked pieces together. In an interview with The Quietus, “I didn’t yet know what working on music looked like after I’d had to change my relationship with it due to work, other life changes, etc. I didn’t really know what any of it would be, until I sat down with all the material and started working on it. But I had been thinking about it that whole time, and slowly starting to see these twin planets emerging. It took more than a year following that to really pull into that shape. [It] felt like dredging a swamp, everything coming up half decomposed.” If it weren’t accompanying every review or news article on the album, there would be no clue The Man Who Died In His Boat was recorded five years ago. It fits in neatly amongst the A I A series as well as Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, albums that came out years apart. It only works because her music is so otherworldly, so out of time with anything that could date itself.
Tracks like “Vital” and “Cloud in Places,” which recall Flying Saucer Attack’s Rural Psycedelia’s I-could-see-for-miles loneliness, are almost achingly beautiful. Like if you removed Kevin Shields lead vocals on “Sometimes” and just left Bilinda Butcher’s background vocals. On “Cover the Long Way” Grouper leads her vocals to the front of the mix, multi-tracking them until they’re incomprehensible and giddily muddled. It’s almost impossible to pick up anything concrete, but instead of being disorienting it sounds more like a dreamy escape, a hollow to nuzzle into.
The Man Who Died In His Boat, like all of Harris’ work under the Grouper name, is music for one. She sings on “Living Room,” “I’m looking for the place the spirit meets the skin/can’t figure out why that place seems so hard to be in.” It’s startling because it’s so clearly stated, accompanied only by a single guitar line and faint tape hiss. It’s a harrowing moment; the lines come out slightly warbled, like she can barely let them go. It’s a feeling she explains in The Quietus interview, “Part of being honest and compassionate about what it means to be human involves assembling all the awkward parts together in the same room with what’s been polished, finding a way to incorporate the flaws into the pattern.” Looking back, I think the reason a lot of the Animal Collective fans couldn’t sit still during Grouper’s set was because it was uncomfortable. But for that show, and for The Man Who Died In His Boat, that willingness to lay something bare made them better and more endearing.