“The mouth of the Columbia River is a chaotic and beautiful place”, Liz harris, a.k.a Grouper, reflects, discussing the relationship between the elements and her music, and reflecting on where she currently lives in Astoria, Oregon. “It is a door to the ocean, always in radical movement. The tide, the wind, the current, the rain. Here we have maritime weather that does not hit the rest of the coast. Thunderstorms calm / reassure me. This observation may surprise long-time listeners of Grouper, who often find a blissful shine in Harris’s fuzzy and dissolving songs. But this testifies to how oppositions oscillate in Grouper music, something particularly visible on his last album, Shadow.
Ever since Harris started releasing his own music, with the Grouper and Way they crept in albums from 2005, she’s on a creative quest, pushing her songs, which fall somewhere between folk, psychedelic pop and shoegaze, into even more mysterious territory. There is no definable narrative here – Grouper the music does not become clearer or more abstract. Rather, Harris seems to be in the making, reflecting that “radical flow” of the mouthpiece that she loves so much. Songs can be beautifully melodic, as with some of the 2008s Drag a dead deer up a hill, or they can be deeply choral and confusing, like the long tracks from the 2019 double album she released under the pseudonym Nivhek.
Something that resonates through Harris’s music, however, is a strong sense of time and place, although that place can be difficult to definitively locate. The songs on Shadow span 13 years, the first since 2008; they also cover places, having been recorded, in various ways, in Harris’s old hometown of Portland; during a residency at his brother’s house in Mount Tamalpais, near San Francisco; and in Astoria, where she also runs an art gallery (Harris herself is a visual artist) and sails boats. Creator and patient listener, Harris waited for the songs that make up Shadow come together: “For years I rearranged different drafts,” she recalls. “No deadline though, other projects come and go, all feeding off each other.”
Shadow opens with Followed the ocean – an empty hiss layer slowly introduces a mulched guitar overloaded wave as Harris sings a choral lament, her voice shrill across the sea as she summons and resists the force of noise surrounding her. Immediately we have an idea of his modus operandi: a welcoming abstraction; song suspended in the air; something muffled and reverent, but expansive and pelagic. Much of the rest of Shadow, however, trade in privacy if not quite immediate, Harris accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, tapping on Unclean spirit, methodically picked on Ode to blue – the cradle of a cat with brilliant and sparkling guitar sounds, a bit like the insistent and rhythmic patterns of his visual art, which also evoke, in a way, the quiet intensity of artists like Agnes Martin and Yvonne audette.
Of the, Shadow seems to internalize; Harris’s voice over Pale interior and The way her hair feels is ruminating, whispered – on this last song she stops several times, seeming to correct her playing and performance, although there is also something very right in the way Harris delivers the song. It comes after the ritual drone-mantra of Disorderly minds, a mutant hymn, twisting in the wind, lost at the end of an underground passage in the metro. Elsewhere, as with Promise and Basement mix, the songs are so muffled that spending time with them feels like listening to them, the attention is almost overwhelming.
ShadowIt is therefore an album of various intensities, of sweet revelations. Its variable recording quality reflects the time it took to take its final shape – Shadow changes of space as often as of mood. Meditating on it Harris says this strain “has come to reflect the long period of time that has passed.” This translation of the passage of time resembles a form of honesty. However, that doesn’t appear to be low fidelity. Just like the artists who share
similar mood and fragility with Harris – artists like Roy Montgomery, Demarnia Lloyd, Maxine Funke, Alastair Galbraith, Kendra smith – Harris makes the most of the means at her disposal and allows her songs to land as they need to land. And with the magnificent closer Kelso (blue sky), you can hear it transform once again, away from the heartbreak and loneliness at the heart of the album, a song that, like Harris says, “brought it back to the emotional climate and the landscape of the present.”