Grouper – The Man Who Died In His Boat

The old songs on Liz Harris’ new LP are ‘songs, the likes of which Harris very rarely writes anymore…’ says Ian Maleney.

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New music from Liz Harris is always going to be warmly received. Few artists making music this abstract and quiet can command the audience which she seems to unconsciously hold in the palm of her hand. She exudes the rare ability to express emotion in purely abstract terms, sound rather than words, feeling rather than intent. It’s a talent she has honed and developed over the past seven or eight years, with increasingly powerful results. The Man Who Died In His Boat is not, however, new music. It may be new to us but you can feel its age, written and recorded around the same time as Harris’ breakthrough record Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, which was released all the way back in 2008. As a result, The Man Who… feels like something pulled out of time, something that goes against the grain of how Harris has grown and changed in the years since these songs were committed to tape.

This is not to say that there are no good songs here, far from it. ‘Vital‘ is a strong piece, with typically distant guitar supporting harmonies designed to mask phrases, slipping syllables into each other and leaving only bare, wordless emotion for us to deal with. The melodies are all there but they are blurry by the time they reach the outside world. Both ‘Vital’ and ‘Cloud In Places’ would have fitted quite well into Dragging…, with the chord progression and rhythm of the latter in particular sounding eerily familiar. It’s a weird thing; where Harris’ music has often been said to play with the idea of emotions and experiences half remembered, here we have her own music appearing again, this time as a ghost, reminiscent of another time, place and mindset.

Vanishing Point‘ feels older again. It brings to mind Harris’ earliest releases, with nothing more than a distorted piano notes echoing out into an unfathomable vastness. It is small and discordant, often coming right to the brink of silence before another cluster of notes appears to stave it off.

While most of the songs on The Man Who… sound like they could have been on Dragging…, it’s quite difficult to imagine them being there. This says something of Dragging…‘s incredible solidity, despite it’s sub-aquatic haze. It makes sense to think of it in the way one thinks of the phrase “body of water”. These 11 tracks are beautiful in their own right but suffer from being both new and old at once. They are so new to the ears that they cannot compete with the “real” album’s history, the way anyone who fell in love with it wore it out, the way it became a new aural texture in the pattern of living. Whether you fell asleep to it or worked to it or fucked to it, it has a history and one becomes attached. It resonates. To ask whether this collection of songs is as good feels pointless, try asking again in five years. On the other hand, its age makes it feel distant and out of time.

Anyone who has enjoyed Harris’ widening scope and increased understanding or expression of her art will find these songs lacking something that you might have gotten used to over her last few releases. The songs here are songs, the likes of which Harris very rarely writes anymore. Whether or not you think that’s a good thing will obviously depend on what you made of the last few records. The most interesting moment on the album is the way ‘STS‘ hints at the direction Harris would begin to move in after the whirlwind of Dragging… began to cease. It is more expansive and more ethereal, pure mood and emotion unencumbered by words or even chords. It’s the finest piece here, so restrained and subtle. The feeling is slightly different, less fighting, more floating; the musical result of learning to cope with what is “getting harder and harder to take” in ‘Living Room’. That track, which closes the album, is beautiful in a whole other way. The vocals are clearer and the emotion more exposed. It’s a position Harris’ has not taken again since, perhaps for the best. This is a beautiful record, and valuable too, but it is not vital.

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