Monday, July 15, 2013

timely arrival: grouper- 'the man who died in his boat'

I’m not sure what it is about the new Grouper record, but it couldn’t possibly have arrived in my life at a better time. Summer is a very insular and isolated time for me - I have a tendency to stay in by myself as much as I can. I find crowds and heat difficult to cope with; the fact that I’m in the vast minority in this preference only adds to the isolation factor. This summer depression that I’ve had for about as long as I can remember (as a child I spent my summers in my room drawing at my desk) makes ‘The Man Who Died in His Boat’ the perfect summer record for me. The tracks are spare, drenched in echo and reverb and usually amount to nothing more than Liz Harris’ voice and guitar. The lyrics are hazy, impressionistic and vague and often incomprehensible (she often layers two voices over each other singing different phrases) but when they are clearly audible the themes of isolation and alienation are crystal clear.

Every year there’s a song that winds up becoming my theme song and this year (or at least this summer) it’s ‘Living Room.’ ‘It is getting harder and harder to fake/Acting like everything is in its place’ is pretty much where I’m at right now. Most people have this feeling in fleeting moments and it soon passes. I almost never leave that state of mind in the summer - I often feel like talking to absolutely no one because I simply don’t have the energy to put on a brave face and act like everything’s great when I have such tremendous difficulty coping with nearly every aspect of the summer. I think this year I’ve been able to get to the heart of it and realize that it’s the fact that it’s a season where every time you leave your house you are bombarded relentlessly with the overwhelming. The sun is in your eyes, the heat is suffocating, the traffic on the streets is merciless and unrelenting, seemingly around every corner there are giant crowds of people locked into their own ego-driven worlds, the overbearing necessity of forced social interaction in such a scene. The only way to avoid it is to not leave your house, which is, of course, not an option. For someone who tries to observe and take things in at their own pace trying to find something to latch onto, so much overstimulation can drive me into an alienated downward spiral.

What I find so magnetic about introspective music in general is that it seems that its creators are able to articulate these feelings and distill them into their music. This is something I feel like I do well in my own music. Introspection is something that people don’t seem to have the time or patience for these days, which makes my admiration for people who commit themselves to it deeper. The best introspective music is the type that creates its own bathysphere where the artist can communicate their deepest, darkest and most revelatory thoughts in the most clear and distinct way that they can and Grouper’s music does this in spades. Even the dense, seemingly formless drones (i.e. ‘6’ and ‘STS’) on the record add to the atmosphere of isolation and loneliness that fills the record. While it seems like the music is holding you at a distance with a haze of effects the record has a clarity of emotion that is concise and incredibly vivid.

‘The Man Who Died in His Boat’ was, surprisingly, a set of songs that Harris had left over from material she was working on while making ‘Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill.’ While the two records bear a resemblance to each other in aesthetics, they still seem distinct. ‘The Man Who Died in His Boat’ seems to rely more on raw emotion than atmosphere and flow which is what gives ‘Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill’ its power (the tracks are cross-faded and arranged in such a way that makes it more of an extended and slowly evolving whole rather than a set of individual songs). The songs themselves are what drive things along on ‘The Man Who Died in his Boat.’ It’s a record that puts Harris in an area where she is straddling the role of singer-songwriter and ambient artist. Jessica Bailiff is a good parallel in terms of this balance, but the two couldn’t possibly sound more different. What they have in common is a gift for balancing solid songwriting with murky atmosphere. This enhances the emotional impact of their music by the fact that they are able to build entire environments for their songs to live and breathe in. Such a pursuit is not something that’s going to win an artist mainstream attention which further liberates them to indulge themselves further making them clearer communicators of their own vision.

While it’s true that some of these songs are dark they are also filled with beautiful, pure melodies. All of the darkness is filled with some kind of hope and a lot of these songs are able to transcend their own sadness. Even the haunting, delayed piano notes of ‘Vanishing Point’ have a playfulness and innocence to them, ‘Being Her Shadow’ is tempered with turns of aching beauty. While this record would fit perfectly with other pre-dawn listening albums I’ve found I can listen to it at almost any time or any place. It works best when I’m staying up late indulging in a little winter dreaming and disappearing in a vortex of nostalgia. It’s isolated music that is the best comfort for someone who has a tendency to feel lonely in a crowded room. There aren’t many of us, but we’re out there.

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