Recorded around the same time as 2008's incendiary Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill
, but unreleased until now, The Man Who Died in His Boat
could almost be that album's companion piece, yet it also stands alone as a great single work from Liz Harris. Her releases as Grouper often make me think of the earliest days of His Name Is Alive, and while no one could ever confuse one artist for the other, both can take you to a similar place, where the opaque apparitions of a song flicker in the corner of a dark, cavernous room, coming in and out of focus like a ghost wavering between the living world and the hereafter. The title of this album calls upon an old memory in which a young Harris and her father came across a sailboat that had washed ashore, its captain missing and never to be found. Like that boat, Grouper's music often feels unpiloted, her songs drifting along rippling aquatic textures that emanate to the surface of her sparse arrangements through the misty brume of reverb, delay and tape hiss. The Man Who Died
, however, finds Harris almost as uncloaked as Dragging a Dead Deer
, the fog still present but lifted just enough, allowing the skeletal strums of her acoustic guitar and ethereal melodies to come into clearer focus.
While moments like "Cloud in Places" filter dream-pop to a bare essence of jangling open-chords and overlapping layers of her dulcet vocals, the music throughout this album remains purely impressionistic -- from the gorgeous lull of the melancholic "Vital" to the mysterious "Being Her Shadow," in which Harris' voice practically melts over slow, circular finger-picking of her six-string which is rendered almost unrecognizable, enveloped in the droning resonance of the room. In the context of The Man Who Died
, the handful of abstract interludes like the spectral piano minimalism of "Vanishing Point" or the haunting drowned ambience of the instrumentals that bookend the album seem to mirror the fateful voyage of that sailboat -- each piece eerie and amorphous, floating as the final remnants of songs that can only be imagined yet never truly heard, like the captain's stories of that day, never told and forever swallowed by the sea. The reason that The Man Who Died in His Boat
remained in the vaults for this long is anyone's guess; it stands among Grouper's best work and is a fantastic entry point into the stunning, beguiling sound world that Liz Harris has made her own.
-Gerald Hammill (February 6, 2013)
"The Man Who Died in His Boat"
"The Long Way"