Album Review: Grouper – Shade

[kranky; 2021]

Liz Harris has been a fascinating artist to watch. Following her work, mostly under the Grouper alias, has been an adventure. Having started out making impossibly-dense and droning pieces with mostly voice and muddy keys and guitars, she slowly, ever-so-glacially, came out of the ambient muck. 2008’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, one of the decade’s finest records, was a sort of turning point for Harris: her words became slightly more discernible, her melodies more apparent, and her music more organized. This trajectory continued, ultimately culminating in a pair of piano-led albums, 2014’s Ruins and 2018’s Grid of Points. With little more than the piano, field recordings, and her gently emotive voice, Harris was making some of the strongest material of her career — shocking, given how much of her was on display.

That trek into the open air continues with her new album, Shade. Grouper has always been a project that moves laterally through time, like the Heptapods in Arrival. She is a fastidious archivist, and even Ruins had pieces that predated the others by many years. The same is true here, as Shade is culled together from at least three different points in her life, some quite old and some very new. In that sense, once could uncharitably say that Shade acts as a sort of outtakes compilation, akin to how 2013’s The Man Who Died in His Boat was mostly pieced together from the Dead Deer sessions. 

That being said, it does hang together pretty coherently, which isn’t too surprising considering that collecting past work and adjoining it to new work isn’t a new skill for Harris. It can, however, be fun to try and trace where each of these nine songs originated in her career. While the piano is entirely ditched, negating any true clue that we’re in the mid-2010s era, there are other certain revealing factors to some songs. “Unclean Mind”, the album’s lead single, is one of her clearest songs to date, with a neat structure and an almost Mazzy Star-esque melody; it’s arguably as close to pop as a Grouper song has ever been. It feels like it absolutely must be one of the newest songs here.

“Pale Interior”, one of the loveliest and most delicate tracks Grouper has ever put out, feels close in spirit to Ruins’ fragile tearjerkers, with Harris laying wisps of her voice over each other like she did so often on albums like The Man Who Died. This is also true of “Ode to the Blue”, which has an icy beauty to it, and a guitar line that feels straight out of an old Smog record. On the flipside is a song like “Followed the Ocean”, which starts the album off with a crunchy noise wall that would have sounded at home on AIA: Dream Loss; meanwhile the dreamy (but eerie) “Basement Mix” would have been snug on AIA: Alien Observer.

It’s not quite as disparate as it sounds. Surprisingly, the album stands up as an album quite well. The noisier pieces are kept as outliers, and the quieter acoustic pieces flow together like a stream. Sometimes, the songs here are clearly not as fleshed out as most of Grouper’s other output. “The Way Her Hair Falls”, for example, features the same verse sung over and over again, in virtually the same way each time, punctuated by long silences. It also has a moment near the end where Harris appears to screw up, and restarts the line, but it’s a moment that calls way too much attention to itself. It’s the sort of ‘look how real and gritty and raw I am right now’ trick that many DIY or lo-fi artists do, and it’s a quirk that Harris has been able to evade. With a song as simple and stripped as this, there is no way she couldn’t have simply done another take.

Even though some of it is a bit undercooked, there are some truly lovely songs here. The aforementioned “Pale Interiors” is just gorgeous, with a classic Grouper melody sung in Harris’ signature whisper. Elsewhere, there are some really surprising little moments like “Promise” with its shockingly bluesy melody and intelligible lyric, which Harris sings with directness and quiet grace. Of course, this is still a Grouper album, but even a drop of bluesiness goes a long way in a Grouper song. Its lonesome, circular guitar figure also strikes a similar tone as her Mirrorring partner Jesy Fortino’s work as Tiny Vipers.

The muddy “Disordered Minds” has a pulse in the background, perhaps the first Grouper song with what you could say has a ‘beat’. And then the closer, “Kelso (Blue Sky)”, is another clear-voiced folk song, light and sunny in a way a bit uncharacteristic of Grouper. It’s almost startling in its bright clarity.

The fact of the matter remains, though, that Shade is basically an odds-and-ends album. Because Harris is such a strong artist, and so confident in the style she’s carved out for herself over the years, it also happens to be a solid record. Harris has long been able to do a lot with very little, able to make songs that seem, for all intents and purposes, like they would blend into the morass of the blogosphere. But there is something Grouper does, some nearly unidentifiable magic that she works, that makes her songs special and moving despite their oft-unassuming nature. Shade is no different. It’s a little loose, a little shaggy, and sometimes simply unimaginative or rote, but it also provides an intriguing glimpse into the archives of one our most beguiling artists.