Liz Harris’ music as Grouper has always existed for me in the moment between consciousness and slumber, when the day’s thoughts stray and splinter into non-sequiturs, when memory atrophies into instantaneous forgetfulness. Not to be confused with sleepiness nor a codeine-induced haze, this state is one of cognizance, though on the precipice of unconsciousness. Often in Grouper’s music, this unawareness manifests itself as déjà entendue, whether that be the ‘gymnopédist’ opening of “Disengaged” or further flung moments of partial recollection. While Liz’s music is gorgeous on a purely aesthetic level, this false, indelible immediacy is, for me, the ensnaring characteristic of Grouper.
Unsurprisingly, this ephemeral comfort is once again present in A I A, Grouper’s much-anticipated, two-part follow-up to her breakthrough album Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill. For many, the appeal of that formative release was its ability to synthesize Liz’s prior penchant for fluid structure and dronescapes with the focus of a singer-songwriter superstructure. But let’s just get this out of the way: a Dragging clone A I A is not. Instead, on Alien Observer and Dream Loss, Grouper once again resides in the ethereal gauze of Wide et al., with only the track “Alien Observer” recalling the singer-songwriter idiom frequented on Dragging.
While split into two LPs that can be appreciated independently of each other, Alien Observer and Dream Loss work best when played sequentially, especially since the two are thematically similar. On each, that aforementioned cognitive tampering is the most pronounced of Grouper’s discography. Liz’s remembrance ranges from the fleeting familiarity of her flowing vocal and disintegrating tape loops on the opener “Moon is Sharp” to far more concrete anamnesis.
This clear reminiscence goes as far as (pseudo) quotation, of others and herself. Just as Dragging’s “Disengaged” is founded on a slight perturbation of Satie’s hollowed melody, “(first heart tone)” commences with what resembles the opening notes of what seems to be a Messiaen piece, only to disperse into newborn lines. Of even more vivid familiarity is “No Other,” which is seemingly identical to Grouper’s 2007 single “Tried.” Although it may seem distasteful for such distant reuse, “No Other” is contextually appropriate in both sound and theme.
Adaptation and sampling aren’t uncommon for tape manipulators and pedal pressers, but Grouper’s aesthetics transcend the rhetorical device of shallow recollection often found in music of her ilk. Not only does she induce recognition, but Grouper melds memory and sound to the point at which memory is codified through her sounds. Akin to Schnittke’s ‘polystylism’ — the juxtaposition of past styles against modernity — Harris employs her sources and references as a catalyst for a listener’s cognitive editing, splicing their memories with Grouper’s and injecting herself into their consciousness.
And yet, when I detach myself from A I A, I’m left feeling uneasy over the legitimacy of what I’ve found, whether ‘identified’ elements are truly present. The quotations and allusions I was so sure I heard now seem tenuous, not even placeable. Perhaps it’s in these mistaken identities where we can find the essence of A I A. Alien Observer and Dream Loss permit and accentuate their listener’s past, fusing with and wrapping around his/her subjective history. For each person, the resulting resonance is unique, so I do not feel comfortable asserting much about this process for another. But for myself, this sound/synapse transposition is as haunting as it is beautiful — surely Grouper’s best.
01. (first heart tone)
02. Dragging the Streets
03. I Saw A Ray
04. Soul Eraser
06. No Other
07. Wind Return
08. A Lie
01. Moon is Sharp
02. Alien Observer
03. Vapor Trails
04. She Loves Me That Way
05. (2nd heart tone) Mary, on the Wall
06. Come Softly (for Daniel D.)