It’s hard to avoid words like ‘oneiric’ when talking about Liz Harris (AKA Grouper)’s music but it’s undeniably a quality that it typically exhibits. Maybe that’s why it’s so consistently compelling. It hangs heavy with mystery; the vocals are always just within reach, but slippery, indistinct, blurred. In an age where information on almost everything is instantly available, it teases you with words you can never quite understand, and notes muddied in endless shimmering reverb. Ruins (recorded in Portugal in 2011) does not completely discard of these qualities, but it does skew them.
Ruins begins with Made of Metal’s quiet, static-hazed drumbeat - low, insistent, indistinct, about as Grouper as percussion can get; what follows is a bit of a surprise, though. Clearing is far closer to the listener than we’ve come to expect from Harris and it’s played on the piano. It’s melodic, sweet, gentle, melancholy – but it’s still just out of our reach. Most of the album follows this, sometimes in songs that bear something of a resemblance to the ‘breakthrough’ of 2008’s exquisite Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, sometimes simple, lilting instrumentals, Erik Satie on sleeping pills. There are repeated piano motifs, the odd harmony vocal in addition to the lead (if that’s the right word), the faint sound of nocturnal wildlife outside and you’re very much in the room with Harris, even if you’re not quite conscious yet. The album ends with the most familiarly Grouper sounding track of all, the 11 minutes plus Made of Air – its marked difference in sound stems form it being recorded seven years prior to the rest of the record (and on another continent at that) but it somehow makes sense, and, yes, it is very much dreamlike.
If Made of Air’s placement seems to hint at a (here’s that word we’d all had enough of four years ago) hypnagogic structure, with it being the final slip into unconsciousness, Ruins actually seems more hypnopompic. It’s the last echoes of a dream at the fragile point where it begins to lose fidelity and threatens to slip away from you forever. In the haze, you try to burn it into your memory, but it’s a struggling tangle of images. Then it’s gone. Something sticks around though, gets under your skin, even if you can’t quite recall what it is. And you want to get back there and dream it again, even if you're not altogether sure it was a happy one. Pass me the Nytol.
‘Ruins’ is out on 31st October on Kranky.
Andrew R. Hill