Grouper’s album ‘Ruins’ builds itself up
Daniel O'Boyle | Tuesday, November 4, 2014
But as the repeated, slow and subtly-changing nine piano notes on “Labryinth,” the album’s fourth track, move toward an end, a microwave beeping can clearly and unmistakably be heard, shocking you away from the images that had been created only by the gentle sounds of Liz Harris’s voice, her piano and the distant sounds of frogs and crickets. The album remains microwave-free from then on, but the surprise of the beep is hard to forget about for the final 25 minutes of “Ruin.”
The reasons such a sound seems so out-of-place are obvious at first listen: even for an artist like Grouper, who has been known since 2008’s “Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill,” for her eclectic music that can build worlds for the listener, “Ruins” is a subtle and delicate album. There are no looping pedals or other effects this time to drown out her voice, but Harris’s piano and perfectly-placed silences accomplish that feat more than ever before.
The world Harris creates this time seems at first to be one in which microwave ovens obviously do not exist. It’s right there in the album’s title; the songs do seem to perfectly soundtrack thoughts of ancient ruins, and few — if any — ancient ruins contain microwaves. But hearing the microwave briefly allows the listener to step away from these pictures and realize so much more about Harris and her songs.
Make no mistake, Harris did not decide that what her latest album as Grouper needed was the sound of a microwave. It appeared purely by accident, when a microwave in the house she recorded the album in turned back on after a blackout, but she may well have realized how it underscores her songs when she chose to leave it in.
The startling beep fits so well because it creates a whole new picture, which couldn’t be further from the images that Harris’s music initially invokes. When Liz Harris wrote and recorded these songs in 2011, she was in a house somewhere in Portugal, and all I know for sure about that house was that it contained a microwave.
The microwave has come a long way in music since Dire Straits dreamed of having them installed in 1985’s “Money for Nothing.” When Radiohead acknowledged the unhealthiness of microwave dinners on “Fitter Happier,” the convenient kitchen appliance was already a synonym for all that is depressing. Maybe Liz Harris never actually used the microwave while recording “Ruins,” but when you hear her softly mumble some of the most human lyrics she’s ever written over a piano that’s often a little out of time, it’s hard not to think of her alone eating yesterday’s leftovers in a house is big enough to carry every echo of every note she plays.
“Ruins” is by far Harris’s most personal record. She announced on its release that she was processing some “emotional garbage” while recording it. She trails off at some point in almost every line, like she doesn’t want to admit to herself anything that she sings, but when you’re eating microwave dinners alone every night, your thoughts eventually wander to what you were afraid of thinking. On “Clearing,” the album’s magnificent second track and first real song after a two-minute intro, she just about gets out the line “maybe you were right when you said I’ve never been in love,” but the final word is barely audible and follows a long pause, like she knew she changed her mind, but that complete silence would admit even more about her loneliness.
It’s this combination of silence and words, which Harris doesn’t want you to hear, that makes “Ruins” sound like earlier Grouper albums, or like many other ambient musicians; however, “Ruins” is something else. Her music doesn’t just build worlds for their own sake this time; she tries to build somewhere to hide from her own thoughts, although she never fully succeeds. The album doesn’t soundtrack Liz Harris among ancient ruins; it simply soundtracks Liz Harris in ruins.