Grouper's Latest Brings Every 'Shade' of Liz Harris into Focus

Grouper's Latest Brings Every 'Shade' of Liz Harris into Focus
Over the past two decades, Liz Harris has embarked on a series of northward moves up the Pacific — Los Angeles, Portland and then further north in Oregon to Astoria — implying a relationship to the coast that is at once deeply identified with it and without roots. Similar purgatorial circumstances haunt the music she makes under the Grouper alias, itself an allusion to Harris's childhood growing up in the Group, a commune inspired by the Fourth Way Christian philosophy of George Gurdjieff — to being of a world without belonging to it.

Capturing songs Harris has been working at for 15 years and nearly as long as Grouper has been active, Shade, Grouper's 12th studio album and Harris's first since her 2019 offering as Nivhek, feels like a career in focus.

Rich with expansive tape hiss and reverb-affected voice and guitar fog, opening track "Followed the Ocean" immediately articulates Shade as typical Grouper landscape. Or, landscape as portrait — Harris is a ship without a port, watching the world around her transform, erode, disappear, but she's trying to connect to it; hide from it too. After spending 2014's Ruins and 2018's Grid of Points exploring works for upright piano and voice, the track feels like a return to the drone buried spells of early albums like Wide and Cover the Windows and the Walls, but then the noise drops out a second into "Unclean Mind" and we meet a Grouper we haven't heard, virtually unadorned acoustic guitar and voice, fingertips squeaking on strings as Harris moves up and down the fretboard, clearer than ever before, and then signal becomes noise: "Tried to hide you from my unclean mind," Harris sighs, harmonizing with her own vocal track, "Put it in a costume / Turning patterns with a perfect line."

That these are some of the clearest lyrics in Grouper history isn't insignificant. Harris has previously said that her music is "more honest to the way my mind works when it is blurred and gestural; more meaning comes across," and here, her lyricism achieves something similar — that Harris is her most accessible when describing the process of making her inaccessibility inaccessible is itself a blurring. Harris relishes in these paradoxical between zones. 

On "Pale Interior," Harris's words lap into each other as she sings of sleepless nights and hiding places erased by nearby lighthouses. On "The Way Her Hair Falls," Harris struggles to make external things recognized internally, fumbling a guitar progression multiple times, adjusting her fingering and reconvening, preserving the track's incompleteness and documenting something between studio and field recording, a decision that diverts attention from the song's lyrical content.

Hiding in plain sight, Harris maintains the purgatorial quality that consistently makes Grouper's most indecipherable performances such comforting places to return to and hard to pin down; there's something so out of reach and unattainable about them, yet the same neglect of an authoritative voice demands listeners bring their own meaning(s) to the songs.

Submerged in reverb, the penultimate "Basement Mix" is more typically indecipherable as Harris's breathy sighs accompany ruminative guitar arpeggios and we're left to follow spare clues: a titular reference to somewhere deep, subterranean, foundational — subtextual? Remarking on 2011's A I A double album, Harris once claimed "That album was torturous to produce," and that, "I didn't finish feeling clean. I'd been living in a basement studio by myself for a year trying to finish it, and when it was done I didn't like it."

Given time to breathe, to live, to coast, with Shade, Harris has found a new stream to navigate, but with distance, it's clear Grouper doesn't have to commit to one world or another to enjoy their comforts. Maybe we don't need just one Grouper either. (Kranky)