The mediocrity of some artists dampens our motivation to treat them with respect. Their music functions as a barely noticeable score to our daily routines. Maybe you’ll spin their records a couple of times but your thoughts quickly wander elsewhere. Fortunately this is not the case with Ruins, Grouper‘s latest LP on Kranky. Far from invisible, Liz Harris has crafted a piece of art that asks for full engagement. It’s all about intimacy and confession.
Ruins‘ artwork features a shadowy figure seen through a rain-splashed window, the black-and white photograph a perfect encapsulation of Grouper’s gloomy music. Throughout her discography of almost ten albums the Portland-based songwriter crossed paths with noise, drone and rock, adapting each to her own somber aesthetic. Harris’s latest album – using just her voice, a piano and four-track recorder – offers a singular narrative that can only be found lurking in the heart-broken self. The inclement Ruins is a perfect Autumn release.
The eight-track album opens with ‘Made Of Metal’, a recording of frogs accompanied by the quiet, creeping beat of a kickdrum. This subtle intro is mirrored in the closing ‘Made Of Air’, its haunting counterpart. At other times Grouper’s presence is immediate. In ‘Clearing’ she questions her capacity to love, “Maybe you were right when you said I’d never been in love”. The heart-crushing ‘Call Across Rooms’ and remaining songs on Ruins return to the theme of the human heart’s fragility.
Harris recorded Ruins in 2011 in Aljezur, a small town in the Portuguese region of Algarve during her residency at Galeria Zé dos Bois. The artist chose a house by the sea where she devoted most of her time to writing music. Sounds of storms appear here and there on the album revealing the contact with nature and humility found only in true isolation. Some tracks include long stretches of silence that will unnerve inhabitants of big cities.
Ruins embodies clarity and presence you won’t find on Grouper’s earlier albums such as last year’s The Man Who Died In His Boat. Here the gentle but insistent dialogue between her voice and the piano is rarely interrupted. This arrangement is conservative but it equips Harris’s music with its own refreshing style of minimalism that allows her message to shine through. Analogue sounds continually pervade her music, appearing often in standard but effective guises such as tape hiss, rain or the surreal beep of the microwave, as in Labirynth, but make no mistake, this is no return to the amorphous haze of her 2011 record A I A: Dream Loss from 2011.
Grouper’s new album is certainly one of the most powerful records released this year. And yet its simultaneous soothing and depressing tone puzzles the listener. She will not let us settle. Her imagery shifts from love to fear, evoking the range of states between comfort and sorrow. In interviews Liz Harris modestly envisions Ruins as a form of therapy to deal with her past. As listeners, we can only imagine the courage she needed to exhibit all the dark storms of her soul.
Ruins is out now via Kranky, order a copy through Bleep.