Apparently, the story behind the title of Grouper’s latest album is that Liz Harris once encountered a dead guy on a boat that had washed up on the shore of Agate Beach in the artist’s native Oregon. The man had a few possessions with him, but the cause of death remained a mystery. Just as the items on the man’s person became mysterious vestiges of an unknown past, so too are the songs on The Man Who Died In His Boat artifacts from an earlier time–in this case, the recording of 2008’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill.
So what we have here is essentially a collection of outtakes. Usually with these kinds of releases, it quickly becomes apparent that the tracks had been discarded for a reason; underdeveloped and awkward, they represent an artist’s craft before and during the process of refinement, whereas we as listeners are used to hearing only that which comes after. But from the opening moments of this album, it’s clear that these songs are more than just afterthoughts Harris has put out as part of some contractual obligation with Kranky. “6” finds her voice ricocheted and opaque, recalling her echoing debut Way Their Crept. The inspiration for these songs thus runs deeper into the past than 2008, allowing The Man Who Died In His Boat to serve as both a presentation of heretofore unreleased material as well as a retrospective of Grouper’s recording career. “Vital” and “Cloud in Places” are more closely reminiscent of Harris’s Dead Deer days, all static-drenched acoustic guitar and quietly affecting melodies and inscrutable lyrics. The latter sounds like a stripped-down alternate take on some long-lost Slumberland single, and it’s moments like this that justify the “shoegaze” label sometimes attached to Grouper’s work.
“Being Her Shadow” sounds a little more spacious, like a folksy precursor to her Alien Observer/Dream Loss double album from 2011. It retains the static and the reverb and the homespun fingerpicking and the vocal sighs, moans, and coos that have become Grouper’s specialty, but here the lo-fi effects act not as a translucent gauze that obscures her sound but rather as an indicator of distance, as though she were playing from the opposite end of a great hall. If this whole album were as echo-heavy, it might start to seem oppressive; thankfully, songs like “Cover the Long Way” offer refreshing clarity, reminding us of Grouper’s talent as a folk artist not unlike Tiny Vipers (with whom she collaborated on last year’s excellent Foreign Body as the duo Mirrorring). Of course, this is followed by “Difference (Voices),” among the droniest numbers here. If Dead Deer represented the perfect compromise between misty ambiance and straightforward songwriting, then one can listen to the songs on this collection in the context of an artist figuring out her balancing act. How much drone is “too much” drone? How many layers of her voice can she squeeze between her guitar strings before they drown out the dreamlike atmosphere she’s worked so diligently to cultivate?
This overarching ambiguity is central to The Man Who Died In His Boat. “Vanishing Point” opens with dusty piano keys, a sound I’m not sure I’ve heard from a Grouper record before. A whirring noise in the background–maybe a large fan or old tape reels–creepily grounds the track in a sense of place that evokes a more claustrophobic variation on the sound of cars zooming down a distant highway that dotted Dream Loss. Was this recorded in a studio or an abandoned basement? It’s a palpable relief when the static settles and the title track begins. It’s a testament to her talent that these recordings lack the trial-and-error shoddiness we might expect from an unreleased set. Even without the context of her back catalog, these songs are strong in their own right. “Towers” embodies her syrupy conception of melody, foggy chords subtly changing one seventh note at a time, poised somewhere between tonal inertia and structured fluidity. Catchy would be the wrong word to use here, but these songs have a staying power as unassuming yet durable as moss on the side of a stone. They’re just there, doing their thing, at once transient and lingering like a fog that never quite dissipates.
Even the album cover conveys a sense of questioning unease. Harris is keeping her eye on something off to the side; she’s biting her fingernails; the angle of the photo is jarring, aimed upwards instead of the more typically flattering downward or faraway landscape shot. Who took this picture? Who was the man who died in his boat? On closer “Living Room,” Harris mentions that “it’s getting harder and harder,” but if that’s the case, then how does she make her music sound so effortless?