Review: Grouper, Ruins

Ruins succeeds by its own modest standards.
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Ruins succeeds by its own modest standards.
grouper ruins

opinion byBRENDAN FRANK

The songs of Liz Harris, aka Grouper, are the musical equivalent of death by a thousand cuts. No single moment goes for the throat, but the grand, understated sweep of her songs and albums as a whole are undeniable. The negative space is as important as the sparsely arranged instruments, and silence is as powerful as any chord change or drone. Curiously, Ruins is the album where Harris has finally decided to break out of her (admittedly gorgeous) routines, and goes unrewarded for it. A series of whispered, whittled piano ballads, Ruins succeeds by its own modest standards.

If it isn’t as stark or atmospheric as Harris’ earlier works, Ruins plays the long game to similar effect. This is an album that invites you to invest in it from the moment you turn it on. Recorded in 2011, the album’s design parallels that of its predecessor, The Man Who Died in His Boat, which compiled recordings Harris had laid down over several years. In terms of structure and sequencing, Harris has clearly made an effort to make it appear as though that is not the case. Bookended by the tracks “Made of Metal” and “Made of Air”, the album makes a distinct effort to pull its themes of isolation and love into a cogent whole along the way. Ruins is an apt title; these songs feel as though they’re decaying as you listen.

The broken chronology of Harris’ works make it difficult to get an accurate measure of her artistic growth, but Ruins shows that she’s at least amenable to switching things up, if not pushing herself into totally unfamiliar territory. Acoustic guitar is replaced by an upright piano, and the reverb and echo pedals smothering Harris’ voice are all but gone. Instead, Harris mumbles many of her lines into the microphone, obscuring the occasional word, giving any one line several potential meanings.

This ambiguity is at the heart of Ruins, and it is mirrored in the music. The distant war drum at the album’s open mimics a heartbeat, and a chord progression will morph from gentle and soothing to haunting at a moment’s notice. There’s also a less emphasis on prettiness – something Harris does very well. “Lighthouse” haunts and moves in equal measure, with the lyrics smudged just enough to force you to lean in further. The sinister tones of “Labyrinth”, on the other hand, are much more overt, and build on the darker moments from The Man Who Died In His Boat. “Holding”, with its forlorn piano line that anchors an evolving, double-tracked vocal melody, is the most conventional track here, brining to mind other bare-bones acts like Gem Club, or maybe Perfume Genius at his most minimal.

Despite consisting of well-crafted, thoughtful songs, the emotional gutpunch that is to be expected from a Grouper album never quite arrives over multiple listens. There are a number lovely moments to be had, but they never add up to more than the sum of their parts, and the album lacks a genuine highlight like “Vital” to prevent things from going down a little too smoothly, forgettably. Harris may be incapable of writing a poor song, but Ruins is disappointingly thin on great ones as well. 

B-