Music Reviews

Ruins, by Grouper

Ruins CoverGrouper is Liz Harris, artist and musician from Portland, Oregon.

Comes Ruins (2014), Grouper’s latest following 2013’s The Man Who Died in His Boat. With the exception of the last track, “Made of Air,” Ruins was recorded in Aljezur, Portugal, in 2011 and released by Chicago’s Kranky Records on Halloween of 2014.

As voiced by the artist herself, the album was “recorded pretty simply, with a portable 4-track, Sony stereo mic and an upright piano.”

Melancholic. Penetrating. Remarkable.—These and like adjectives root in Ruins.

On the opening track, “Made of Metal,” Harris captures sharp sounds of the highly active life living outside her temporary residence in Aljezur. Sounds like what came before us: copious amounts of insects, frogs and birds all hungrily calling into the heavy night.

Composition-wise, Harris envelops listeners by expertly using a few, yet powerful, elements. But a handful of simple, pyre-like piano notes and one quiet guitar partnered with some tape loops and Harris’ hushed vocals, fill ears with somber tones.

The ache of inner emotional truth in the light of how things truly are, produce in Harris’ voice a wintry tone; painful remnants of passing love pall the power of her barefaced words with an icy fragility, as when in “Clearing,” the voice behind the words, “Every time I see you I have to pretend I don’t,” sounds as if singing the line is nearly too much; as if the singer isn’t just singing but experiencing anew the truth expressed through the words before us on tape, re-living ruins. Such also is the case in the dusky drift of knotted honesty and regret in the line: “Sometimes I wish that none of this had happened.”

It’s a perfect blend, Harris’ fragile voice and those skeletal piano notes. They sound inseparable, and the piano, though sounding as affected as Harris, provides just as strong a voice heard on the album as any other, even taking over instrumentals “Labyrinth” and “Holofernes.”

Though Harris’ words often sink from clarity deeply into the sound, their meaning masked in tone is as clear as the drops of rain falling from the thunderstorm that closes “Holding.”

Each track of the album runs its listener farther from private emotional turrets crumbling inside physical structures to the eleven-minute, disintegrative ending that is “Made of Air.” No words to anchor the feeling, no distinctive voice (guitar, piano) that so characterized the tracks prior, but sound and sound only—a pushing, pendulous, free flight to silence.

By its ethereal drift and telling title, “Made of Air” sounds the course of the elemental transition/decomposition of relationships, love and structures to a formless expanse, the great weight of ruins cast.

Yet, for all its weight in sound and feeling—seemingly filled by the inspiration of place and pain—, the overall languid feeling of Ruins does little to create any tension for listeners, filling ears instead with tranquility like a sleepy white-haired death from the bed.

Little fight from the ear as “Made of Metal” pumps out its final, and hard, heartbeat before the piano-etch of “Clearing” abruptly shifts tonality and Harris’ words, “Open up the window, try and let the light out” cuts a path through the aural brush to songs of grey stillness, bright pain, terrible longing and lonely beauty.

16mm Film by Paul Clipson for “Made of Air”