Music Reviews
The Man Who Died in His Boat

Grouper The Man Who Died in His Boat

(Kranky) Rating - 8/10

It can be difficult to describe Liz Harris’ Grouper project because she isn’t making music for conscious appreciation. She uses music to explore subconscious mental states; her songs are filtered through dreams, musical “hypnagogia”. The Man Who Died In His Boat was recorded in 2008, along with her most beloved and accessible record, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, which is being simultaneously re-released (and which I also recommend wholeheartedly). Since then, her solo music has plunged deeper and deeper into the realms of the subconscious, the hidden syllables and gestures of her work getting subtler and subtler.

On her astonishing double album A|A, Grouper abandoned the softly-strummed guitars of Dragging a Dead Deer, the songs blurring into indistinct, dream-like shapes. But last year, her music sank even further into dreamlike bliss, reaching gestalt with her Circular Veil live performances, which lasted 7 hours and were designed to emulate the mental activity of a sleep cycle. She provided pillows for her audience and allowed them to drift into semi-consciousness, guided by the music (a similar concept is explored on her 50-minute sleep cycle album Violet Replacement II). It’s difficult to imagine where she could go from here.

So perhaps in resurfacing this five-year-old material, Harris is turning back to a fork in the road, starting anew. The songs on The Man Who Died are every bit deserving of their somewhat askew presence in the Grouper canon. It’s the sound of a musician exploring the possibilities of her then finely-honed style; it’s interesting now to look back at how much of it she’s since abandoned while exploring similar themes. It lacks the seamless cohesion of other Grouper records, but then Grouper is one of few musicians who could pull off an odds-and-ends record so convincingly, because she still sounds like no one else out there.

The record begins with a brief vocal loop experiment, 6, somewhere between her early-career noise experiments and a rough-around-the-edges precursor to her later work, as if she’s allowing the ghostly swells of her production techniques to take over; it’s explored even more effectively on Being Her Shadow. Closing track STS has a similarly transitive feel - six minutes of mid-range ambient auras, like she’s dwelling in a fragment of a bigger song, slowing it to a halt; it could well have fitted on A|A. Less successful is Vanishing Point, which zooms somewhat directionless on a couple of discordant piano notes, still not an unthinkable direction for her music.

However, most of the album occupies the same place as Dragging a Dead Deer, due to its gently-strummed acoustic guitars and implacable vocal harmonies.  The main difference is that the songs are mostly self-contained, whereas Dragging a Dead Deer’s most remarkable feat was the blurring between where themes began and ended. I reckon it will become some listeners’ favourite Grouper record, as it's perhaps her most melodically inviting release, with standout tracks like Vital and Cover the Long Way being the closest to a “single” Grouper gets.

But for me the highlight, and the direction I’d be interested in hearing Grouper develop further, is Living Room – seldom in Grouper’s music can one distinguish any lyrics, only stray syllables; yet Living Room lifts the veil of reverb and the effect is stunning. Using the lowest register of her voice, (and thus eluding the reach of the overused adjective “ethereal”, which I’ve been trying hard to avoid), she murmurs, I'm looking for the place the spirit meets the skin / Can’t figure out why that place feels so hard to be in – a couplet that washes over you with the sublime depth her aesthetic approach achieves so uniquely. It’s about the same questions of dualism and subjectivity that an intimate immersion in Grouper’s music can also provoke, and it embeds itself with the same hushed power.

Thousands of trendy bedroom musicians overuse delay and reverb and lean upon its nostalgic, hazy qualities, but Grouper is one of very few artists to develop a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of how listeners psychologically respond to these effects, what can be done with reverb if it’s used reflexively. The record is something of a (drowsy and free-floating) victory lap for Harris, after having been so aesthetically successful with her oneironautical experimentations; it really is some of the most important contemporary music being made. The Man Who Died avoids the stigma of outtakes releases because it’s an ideal entry point into one of the most distinctive, fascinating musicians of our time.