Grouper – “The Man Who Died in His Boat”
Good albums can be likened to infinite spectacles we have grown familiar with inside the human experience. They are vehicles, yes, they take us somewhere new and unexplored: some are trains, from point A to point B the scenery is displayed in a panorama while the soft hum of the wheels rapidly careening along the tracks lulls you into a peaceful trance; some are airplanes, unpredictable, the pilot’s voice invading the stuffy cabin telling you in that muffled tone you may hit turbulence, in a moment you feel serene but in the next perhaps you’ll be nauseous from the motion; yet some are your high school friend’s old shitty Volvo, with your feet on the dashboard and the blinding sunlight filtering in through the spotty windshield from coast to coast, morning to night, you are hurtling toward the horizon in a daze where the interior and exterior marvels of being alive blend into an indeterminable spectrum of colors and lights and sounds. In all cases, the journey we embark on when deciding to listen to an album is undeniably more significant than the destination.
It is also true that the deepest value of what music can be exists in a specified fusion of time and place. While certain songs are meant to be blasted into a throng of sloshed teenagers during raucous Friday night house parties, others are destined to be contained in a pair of headphones for an audience of one. There are worlds of music meant for sunny afternoons, and there are planes of sounds fated for bleak rainy mornings. It seems as if the latter of these sentiments is a less sought out corner of music in a broad sense of today’s scene, although the inherent worth of compositions that rouse introspect is one cemented in our understanding of the importance of personal bonds to music. The social aspect of music culture (songs that are intended to unite people rather than detach them) is the side that appears to be prevailing. However, this does not mean that albums catered to inner exploration are not being made. Grouper’s The Man Who Died in His Boat is a glowing reminder of why it is necessary to experience the profound austerity of the haunting hours, where light is replaced by black and you can feel the absence of other souls stirring; it is a collection of the darkest feelings balanced by the purest beauty and how this arrangement is really what it is to be human.
Liz Harris released the first album (Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill) under the Grouper moniker in 2008. Whereas Dragging a Dead Deer was more straightforward in terms of sound (focusing on the simple structure of folk-esque acoustic guitar and vocals), the essence of Grouper has transfigured into the marriage of ambient static as a backdrop with Harris’ minimalist guitar chords and distressed vocals hovering above like a withered, tattered ghost too tired to disturb the mortals walking below. Every track resonates with a pervasive hiss, as if Harris recorded these shadowy ballads on a dusty and forgotten 8-track she found in the attic, a relic of a time simpler, sadder. The Man Who Died in His Boat is not about love. It is also not about hate, or disdain. It is not about white or black, but rather the deepest chasms of grey found in between.
While each song is inextricably threaded to one another, the cloudy drone of the instrumental tracks (most notably “Vanishing Point” and “STS”) effectively separate Harris’ forlorn vocals and lengthen the circumference of the record as a whole. However, the strongest distinction on the album is the contrast between Harris’ breathy, completely indecipherable falsetto timbre and more conspicuous choruses, the former comprised of cuts “Cloud in Places,” “Cover the Long Way,” and the title track stand as the strongest and most symbolic of what Grouper represents at its core. Even though most of the lyrics are lost in Harris’ trademark sonic fog–which leaves the meaning of each song up to the listener rather than forthright being about a definite theme–the rare occasions where Harris’ poetry can be heard are striking, understated, and effective. On the ninth track, “Towers,” the repetition of the phrase, “Let it rise” is delivered in a manner more figurative to being let down. It is this exact quality that makes The Man Who Died in His Boat a heartbreaking and brilliant album: the idea that there is hope, but it is buried in the most cavernous doldrums of your heart and you must be willing to wade through mucky chambers to find rest.
The Man Who Died in His Boat is not a train or a plane or a car (or even a ship); it manifests itself inside you, making your legs the only vessel. If it were a soundtrack, it would play as you walked through a ghost town while snow fell gently above and around you. Through the feeling of inexplicable dread and loss crushing the gutted shells of buildings around you, you have been here before, it is the physical embodiment of everything you once loved and understood from a time washed away by grainy sorrow and fear. It is the alarming occurrence when you feel hollow, yet your heartbeats are rapid and sharp. It is a subtle cue that beauty and pain are often the same thing.
Although this record will most likely not be remembered as an important or relevant fragment in the zeitgeist of the 21st century, it is a culmination of feelings and ideas that are timeless. The last song on The Man Who Died in His Boat is called “Living Room.” At under two and a half minutes, it is the second shortest song on the album (behind abstract, muddled opener “6”). It is composed of a single stanza of poetry, and is one of the affecting closing tracks to an album I’ve come across in a long time. An unadorned, fuzzily fingerpicked guitar pattern accompanies Harris as she gravely croons, “I’m looking for the place where the spirit meets the skin, can’t figure out why the places feel so hard to be in.” Living is simply a giant puzzle, and all the pieces are impossibly scattered around; naturally, the only constant we experience is uncertainty. As the last notes fade into silence, into oblivion, she murmurs, “It’s getting harder and harder to fake, acting like everything’s in its place.” And then we are left alone, staring at the ceiling. Reminded for a final time that we came into consciousness and will leave it the same way: not with a flash, but with a flicker.
Review by Sigmund Steiger.