Liz Harris’ recordings as Grouper have painstakingly established a distinctive and enveloping sound. Her high watermark as an artist is arguably 2008’s majestic Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, but subsequent albums have sustained her detached and otherworldly atmospheres.
It comes as something of a surprise, then, to find Harris completely deconstructing her sound and approach on Ruins. Most recently, Harris has been delving into her recent past for each new release. The Man Who Died In His Boat collected outtakes from the same sessions that comprised Dragging A Dead Deer… but cohered beautifully as an album in its own right. Ruins was actually recorded whilst Harris was living in Portugal, in 2011, using a four track recorder (remember those?), a piano, and very little else.
Ruins is one of those albums that sounds as it it was made easily and affordably – but it is also the kind of album that very few artists would have the courage or audacity to make. It is stripped back to bare bones, and it sounds vulnerable and pure. Whereas Harris has often used drones, fuzz, white noise and feedback to overwhelm the humanity her music, here she is exposed and unadorned.
Longstanding Grouper fans need not feel too unnerved by this, however – this music is still delightfully strange. Clearing might in another world be a hit in the manner of Lana Del Rey’s Video Games but the whole album is made eerie and unusual through the use of ambient sound. There is a perpetual background hiss (presumably from the recording device) and a continual presence of a very natural ‘room sound’. This is particularly effective when Harris makes liberal use of the piano’s sustain pedal, particularly on the slow-burning, cylindrical Labyrinth. In its own way, this is a recording every bit as beautiful as the most meticulous of studio constructions. In its subtlety and minimalism, Ruins also resembles a number of other skeletal works. Plush‘s More You Becomes You and the sole Mark Hollis solo album spring to mind
Harris also still sounds like a ghostly presence in her own music, her voice thin and whispery (in a highly effective way), with the candid lyrics (“maybe you were right when you said I’d never been in love”) often quite difficult to discern. She is lost in the shadows, “living in the remains of love”, as her press notes tell us. Much of the music feels suspended and unresolved (Lighthouse especially feels as if it could continue for eternity), and there is a continual sense of mystery in spite of the album’s relative straightforwardness and clarity. Whilst it certainly stands alone in Harris’ discography, Ruins retains a somnambulant quality common to all her work.
Given that Ruins adopts such a singular methodology and sound, it’s curious that Harris has opted to conclude it with Made Of Air, an 11 minute wordless track recorded seven years earlier, and much more in keeping with the rest of her output. It feels oddly designed to bring the work up to a standard album duration, and it’s arguable that it might have worked better as a more modest and concise EP. Still, it’s a typically resourceful, subtle and mesmeric addendum – and one that underlines just how consistently excellent an artist Harris has been.