Grouper Ruins

[Kranky; 2014]

Rating: 5/5

Styles: repeating patterns
Others: M C C l l H H M

Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your torrents,
and all your waves and breakers
sweep over me.

– Psalm 42:8

“There is a deep which answers to the deep of human ruin.”
– Charles Spurgeon, “Sermon 865: Deep Calls Unto Deep”

“Funny that we still haven’t figured it out
That we still turn in circles”

– Liz Harris, “Call Across Rooms”

A I A, the masterwork of Liz Harris’s aesthetic and conceptual focuses as Grouper, derives its twinning title from the opening line of the above verse (“abyssus abyssum invocat”). That deep calls to deep is the animating truth of internal life, and my only proof is how this music reaches out to answer me. In a religious sense, for Spurgeon, the deep of Divine Grace answers the deep of Human Misery and calls to the deep of the Believing Heart. In another sense, for me, and maybe for Harris, the inexpressible deep of human misery is at times expressible enough to conjure the grace of recognition, a call and response. Where before Grouper mined the liminal deep of un/familiar dreamspace, now she looks outward to the in/tangible deep of relationships and the remnants of their failure to tap into a shared, spiritual sense of ruin.

Symmetry, repeating patterns, calls, responses, and loops have long occupied Grouper, but they’ve never been used to strike so close to her waking interiority — or at least not this clearly, using this approach. Harris’s analog mastery has created an inhabitable space of intense clarity, so that the silences become suggestions of the room she made them in, a sustained window. The affective work of Ruins is to translate with heartfelt precision the time and space of its recording, to collapse the world of its making and its consumption (as deep calls to deep). In the quietness between piano notes and breaths and rolls of thunder and frog croaks, when the atmospheric hiss in your ears spills out into the sounds actually around you, it seems at the same time to invite your surroundings in.

Ruins is sustained by this closed conversation between times and spaces. The way “Labyrinth” fades into the lingering hum of a sustain pedal before you’ve heard its first notes creates a never-ending atmosphere, a hazy maze that hasn’t been figured out. Each deviation from the line falls back into the same melody, the rhythm near constant: a live loop, a potentially eternal spell that only the beep of a microwave could break. Pattern is engrained in the album — TMT writer Ze Pequeno noticed that even its tracklisting creates a symmetrical acronym (see Others, above). In their minimal repetition, the songs are managed by a sense of inevitability, so that they can never get away from themselves. Even so, this sort of regularity becomes a comfort, the way sadness can feel comfortable. Grouper’s momentary capture of depressive familiarity becomes a relief in itself, an extension of loss that turns her ruins into a home.

Despite being among her most captivating, immediate songs, “Clearing” and “Lighthouse” remain slight, elusive things. Their melodies burrow under the skin over multiple listens, until the wavering line of her voice isn’t so much stuck in your head as it is tattooed there, the inky hush of her words stained deep into the folds of your inside world, until you are surrounded by ruins that demand reverence. The steady quietness of “Holding” creates the kind of live stillness required for appreciating mundane ritual (walking along the water’s edge and watching leaves shake together and fall, bowing down to let the last hot shower water run over your head and down your face). The song’s closing plain-sung words, “There’s nothing left to hold to” are the last thing to grasp on to, a haunting preservation of separation.

Eventually, the songs are washed away by passing thunder, disappearing like the last syllable of “Holding,” into silence. Then, from a distance, the storm-noise of “Made of Air” lowers like a cold front. It recalls the delay-drenched strumming of Grouper’s earliest work, a ruin amongst ruins. Without the previous songs’ guiding piano and voice, its central melody (an obscured premonition of the looping, faltering line from “Lighthouse”) collapses into reverb, forming and reforming against itself like waves, until it’s worn away into nearly nothing. Before it disappears, two notes persist, calling back and forth, almost echoes of one another, sustaining the song all on their own with the hope that their conversation is enough, until it ends. But then the hand-patted “Made of Metal” drum clears the air and summons our awakening once more, inviting us to begin again the ritual of listening and remembering.

Because “What has been done/ Can never be undone,” we’re left not with the ambiguous tumult of a storm, but a reminder of the ruinous cycle of our lives, the repeating pattern of our mistakes and reliefs, a preservation of decay, sustained by the tiny human fault line we draw around the noise and the clearings we create within that line. With Ruins, Harris opens up a portal to one of those clearings, and I don’t feel quite as bombarded affectively and aesthetically (by problems, timelines, insecurities, noise, and other people) when I hear its call and disappear there.

Links: Grouper - Kranky


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