Somehow Liz Harris’ newest Grouper record, ‘Ruins,’ has managed to convey an unbelievable otherworldliness and abstraction without any of the elements that she has used on previous Grouper records. It’s mostly made up of piano and voice arrangements with some subtle field recordings. The closest it gets to affected atmosphere is tape hiss serving as texture. It would be easy to say that her earlier output owed most of its mystery and magic to the dense curtains of reverb she would cloak her songs in, but ‘Ruins’ would suggest otherwise. When I saw Grouper at Constellation for the Kranky Records 20th anniversary celebration last December she opened with one, possibly two songs from ‘Ruins’—it’s difficult to remember clearly as I’d never heard the songs before and each one seemed to melt into the next so seamlessly it was difficult to think of the performance in terms of specific songs—specifically ‘Clearing’ (and possibly ‘Call Across Rooms’ as well). She played the song on an electric piano with a decent amount of reverb and barely sang above a whisper, but the song seemed like the most straight-ahead thing I’d ever heard from her. Here it’s in an even more unadorned state, which does nothing to detract from its dreaminess. You can make out most of the words if you listen carefully enough, which is rare in Harris’ back catalog.
Last year’s ‘The Man Who Died in His Boat’ had a few moments that had a similar unadorned-yet-dreamy quality that were based around acoustic guitar-based arrangements (the title track and musically and emotionally stark closer ‘Living Room’). Isolation and inwardness has always been where the magic could be found in Grouper’s music and in that sense ‘Ruins’ succeeds even more effortlessly than ‘The Man Who Died in His Boat.’ There are a few instrumental pieces that serve to keep an overall emotional and textural continuity—opening track ‘Made of Metal’ is mainly just the pounding of some type of drum-like sound building quietly into the sound of frogs chirping until there is the sound of a tape machine being switched on and footsteps walking through a room before the start of ‘Clearing.’ In a recent New York Times interview Harris says that she’s been trying to use silence to create atmosphere and it appears to be working beautifully. Before these silences were filled with a sort of vacuum-like deep, ominous hum that would fill the gaps of slowly-decaying musical phrases. No matter how much of a pitch the music would reach you were always aware of this ominous, atonal hum. Here it’s been replaced by gaps of the type of silences that seem deafening in their demand for your attention.
Just as the flow of the album seems straightforward and established over the next few tracks the aching beauty of ‘Holding’ kicks in slowly—notes are played on the piano cautiously, as if they’re being heard by the person playing them for the first time until they slowly grow into hypnotic, spare patterns that are then augmented by Harris’ distinctive self-harmonies. The lyrics are so clear that a narrative can almost be made out—a desire to disappear into the embrace of someone else. It’s a beautiful sentiment that’s almost perfect in its impossibility and clarity. While the song stretches on for nearly eight minutes, culminating in the sound of lightly falling rain it almost seems like it’s receded too quickly. What’s most surprising to me about closing track ‘Made of Air’ is that it was recorded by Harris a decade ago and while it seems to resemble her older material on a superficial level it works perfectly to close ‘Ruins.’ It’s difficult to tell what instrument is disguised underneath all of that inky reverb—it could be anything, really, but the track works perfectly to play you out of the tiny single-room world that ‘Ruins’ has created in its 40 minutes. I’m constantly amazed by how Harris is able to put together coherent releases from pieces that she’s had lying around for years—‘The Man Who Died in His Boat’ was made up mainly of outtakes from the time of 2008’s ‘Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill’ and ‘Ruins’ was recorded mostly while Harris was staying in Portugal in 2011 (it’s easy to assume that she was staying in an empty room with nothing but a piano and a 4-track). Being able to pull seemingly disparate parts together to create a fluid selection of music with such carefully attuned emotional resonance is what has been garnering more and more attention for Grouper’s music over the past few years.