Grouper - The Man Who Died in His Boat
Besides the untold devastation to human lives and physical structures, the 2011 Japanese earthquake caused another unsettling phenomenon to take place months after the initial damage had been done. Around the first year anniversary of the disaster, debris pulled from the Japanese shorelines and coastal towns floated its way across the Pacific Ocean and started being found along beaches of the West Coast of the United States. Among wood and plastic were buoyant trinkets and family heirlooms, pieces of lives whose current condition was a mystery to whoever happened to stumble upon it at the beach. Most famously a 165 ton section of a dock was deposited on a beach in Oregon where it became an immediate tourist attraction. These fragments of past lives strangely resemble the experience of listening to a Grouper album. From her earliest records, the dark, worldly drone of Liz Harris' music has often seemed like being able to listen to fragmented memories in black and white.
Naturally, a lot of the discussion surrounding Grouper's new album The Man Who Died in His Boat has centered around it being a collection of tracks recorded during the time her magnum opus Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill was written and released. The immediate assumption is that these tracks were throwaway demos or b-sides that didn’t make it onto the final cut of Dragging, but the truth is that The Man Who Died in His Boat plays less like a rarities collection and more like a sister album or companion piece to that 2008 masterpiece. While the song structures and instrumentation sound analogous to her earliest songs, the mood and setting of The Man Who Died In His Boat is a unique, separate experience from Dragging.
If there is an immediate, striking difference between the two albums it’s how little The Man Who Died In His Boat relies on discernible lyrics. Besides the aching moan of album standout 'Vital' and closer 'Living Room', her vocals bounce in an infinite echo beneath layers upon layers of tape hiss. Some of the more whispered songs accompanied by dark, ambling electric guitar sound like precursors to what we heard on 2011's A I A: Alien Observer and Dream Loss. But even where the roundabout melodies on 'Alien Observer' were still somewhat intelligible, the voice on 'Being Her Shadow' is reduced to a neo-Gregorian choir of sustained vowel sounds. The result is a darker, more introspective side of the Grouper discography. The clarity of the A I A series was a symptom of the subject matter; the sterility and emptiness of space. But here, the lo-fi hiss is like a swift constant wind blowing through a patch of Douglas fir trees, an earthy, melancholy ache.
Beyond the short drone opening '6' and the atonal echoed piano on 'Vanishing Point', most of the songs here toy with the ambient folk beauty that made Dragging such a stunning album. It can seem a little too familiar at times, like the realization that 'Cover the Long Way' is essentially 'Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping, Part 2', but at other points the familiarity is more subtle. There's the breathless, angelic 'Vital', and the cracks of thunder that open and close 'Difference (voices)' and 'STS' that serve as a brief moment of field-recorded lucidity from the heavenly highs of some of the more wistful sections.
In past interviews, Liz Harris has told the story of how, as a child, she was intimidated into literally dragging a dead deer up a muddy hill by an older girl. Similarly, her new release pulls its title from the memory of a wrecked sailboat Liz explored with her father in Agate Beach, Oregon when she was a teenager. Agate Beach, being the same place where much of the Japanese debris, including that large dock, has been deposited. The dock is gone now, cut into manageable sections and ground up into gravel, but one large piece with a crude spraypainting of Hokusai's The Great Wave is being preserved and converted into a monument in memory of the victims of the earthquake. Where many of the tracks on The Man Who Died in His Boat could have been as easily thrown away as the debris that floats across the ocean, Grouper's conceptual vision and subtle songwriting makes this an immersive and ethereal addition to her impressive catalog.