A stripped-bare set that unfolds with elegiac elegance…
Grouper - Ruins

Forever albums become fewer and further between the older you get. No new record will ever quite impress, with lasting power, like those heard at a time where every other riff sounded fresh, each iteration of a band’s career a leap into a glorious new world of sparkling sounds and iridescent imagery. The music of one’s youth, the soundtrack to teenage memories: it never dulls.

‘Ruins’ feels like it might be a forever album, though. I’ve been playing it almost every day for something like a month. Let me check my emails real quick… Yep, received on September 1st. I can’t remember the last time an album that (being completely reasonable here) probably isn’t its maker’s best collection established such an immediate hold on me. But there you go: the play count doesn’t lie.

Grouper is Liz Harris, a California-based musician whose 2008 set ‘Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill’ – reissued in 2013 – is something of a marker for richness in ambience, an enveloping haze of glacial harmonies ever so slightly touched by a darkness. She operates in an area of collage-like creations also occupied by Julianna Barwick and Hammock: acts that can take a listener far beyond their present state with little more than a whisper.

‘Ruins’ is probably the quietest record you’ll hear in 2014. Just Harris and a piano for the most part, it’s a stripped-bare set that unfolds slowly and almost shocks you out of your seat when an unforeseen accoutrement like the pinging of a microwave on instrumental piece ‘Labyrinth’ pierces the elegiac elegance.

When she sings here, Harris is never full-blooded, instead a hushed accompaniment to her own playing – which is not to say that lyrics don’t strike home like stakes to the swollen heart. ‘Holding’ opens with a lip-trembler: “I hear you calling and I want to go / Straight into the valleys of your arms and disappear there.”

The album-previewing ‘Call Across Rooms’ is three minutes of tone-setting intimacy which sounds almost too close to the source to listen without feeling a little uneasy – as if we’re invading someone’s private space, where their thoughts come carried on skeletal keys, leaving plenty of space for silence. ‘Clearing’ is comparable of consequence: is this guilt we’re feeling for hearing these songs, so softly sighed as to be verbal notations meant only for her who utters them?

Of this album’s writing and recording, undertaken for the most part in Portugal in 2011, Harris has said it’s the “first time I’ve sat still for a few years”. For most of its running time, you won’t want to move anywhere, either. Maybe don’t stay that way forever, but frequent returns to ‘Ruins’ in the coming years are guaranteed.

9/10

Words: Mike Diver

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