Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: Grouper “Ruins”

Douglas Martin pines over the latest dish from Liz Harris' pseudonym
By    November 14, 2014

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Douglas Martin is putting his Tims back on this winter

From my perspective, it seems as though Grouper’s modus operandi up to this point has been to explore interiors (dreams, personal feelings, the human psyche in general) through the atmosphere of distance. Every Grouper song felt like it was happening far, far away from you, no matter how emotionally connected you were to it.

The Grouper records of the past have heretofore been enveloped by a heavy layer of gauze and reverb, highlighting a soothing, dreamlike quality, most notably on the masterpieces Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill and The Man Who Died in His Boat. Very few artists are able to explore the same motif with such stellar results, but it’s a testament to Liz Harris’ talents as a musician that she can go so long without radically changing her approach and not run the risk of sounding stale.

Ruins simultaneously is and isn’t a radical readjustment to Harris’ approach to making music. Whereas her past efforts suggested an intimacy from across the field, her newest record under the Grouper name is the first time where the songs (with the exception of one) feel like they’re inhabiting the same room as the listener. The sound of the piano fills the room, Harris sings in a loud whisper, like when you’re singing a song to yourself and you don’t really want anybody else to hear you.

It’s not an entirely different vocal approach than on past albums, it’s just that with her voice as clear as day — without the mine-tunnel reverb that carried her voice to a different dimension — the intimacy of how and what she sings exists in the room’s space instead of ethereally floating into the nooks or spreading outside into the air. Maybe it should go without saying, but this approach makes it infinitely easier to grasp the lyrical themes of the record.

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Going back to those interiors, Ruins seems to be a very appropriate title for this record, as the rumination over a failed relationship, regardless of who you are, often feels like walking through a house that has crumbled to the ground. “Living in the remains of love” is what Harris referred to it as in her press release. She sings of pretending not to notice this great love of her past, of longing for the touch of someone who is not around anymore, of the hope of finally understanding what caused the house to fall in the first place. It’s very affecting stuff, to finally hear the words of the voice that has been guiding you through sleep for the past five years (and by “you” I mean “me”) and to have it express a feeling you’re intimately familiar with, like heartbreak. Harris’ lyrics here are poetic in their simplicity, like a caring friend who shares a very specific experience with the same problem you’ve had or are having.

But even when the lyrics aren’t audible, even when there are no lyrics at all — like on the album’s bookends: the beating drum-led “Made of Metal” and closer “Made of Air,” which floats and drones like the best of Grouper’s non-Ruins work — it’s like a lonely morning walk through rubble and rubbish, the sun peeking through the holes where the windows used to be. If you’ll allow me the indulgence of being personal, the music released under the Grouper name has always touched my heart for one reason or another; I listen to it as a security blanket in times of despair. But listening to Ruins is an emotional experience of a different stripe than those records, simply because Liz Harris communicates a feeling through both her music and lyrics that is plaintive and earnest, but still finds comfort in the spaces between the words and notes, as if she knows those spaces help soothe the restless soul.

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