The world of new music isn’t really the same unless there is a new Grouper record, and thankfully in 2021 Liz Harris returns with her twelfth in Shade.
A collection of compositions spanning over the last 15 years, Harris describes Shade as an album inspired by respite, with themes weighing heavily on her native Pacific Northwest.
2019’s Grid of Points left us, for want a better term, short changed. Falling short of 22 minutes, it left us wanting far more. However, Grouper’s high watermarks of the past (2008’s Dragging a Dead Dear Up a Hill, 2011’s A I A: Alien Observer and A I A: Dream Loss, and 2014’s Ruins ) meant that Harris had far too many credits in the bank to get to hung-up on something even the most cynical soul would call a misstep.
Which brings us to Shade. Whilst some may consider this an odds-and-ends collection (parts of album were made during a self-made residency Mount Tamalpais, with the remainder of the album written in Portland, and, more recently, in Astoria), it’s the unevenness of Shade that proves its greatest strength.
Harris lifts the veil from the vulnerability captured on past recordings. For a lot of Shade, the security blanket of noise is lifted in favour of unvarnished, gorgeous vistas of sound, showcasing a new, naked intimacy that Harris has seldom revealed to us before.
While the scratchy lo-fi hum of Followed the Ocean and Disordered Minds still maintain the hushed tones and fluctuating sound waves of earlier Grouper recordings, these thick, smoky textures are largely a fleeting throughout Shades.
Unclean Mind and Basement Mix are stripped to the bare bones, with Harris’ voice rising above gentle chords in something like dream-state hymnal folk. So too Ode to the Blue and Pale Interior, which feminise the origins of sadcore and feel so cold and exposed, not even the roaring flames of a campfire would thaw them out.
Then there’s The Way Her Hair Falls. So fragile, Harris presents this in what seems like a single take and the song is all the better for it, encapsulating the raw essence of Shades. It’s one of the most beautiful moments captured on tape all year. So startling, following cut, Promise, just about reaches its height as Harris dispatches something that doesn’t melt the heart, but crushes it.
On the ghostly hypnotic closer, Kelso (Blue Sky), Harris juxtaposes coastal imagery (“Blue sky on the edge of my mind”) against heart-wrenching balladry (“In the morning I wake up crying again” and “Can’t believe that I don’t get to see you one more time”), which perfectly ties together the themes of Shades. Hope overshadowed by despair. Beauty losing out to heartbreak.
It makes for a fascinating collection of songs that illuminate an intimacy and honesty previously not heard from Harris. Oddly enough, for those yet to delve into Grouper’s body of work, Shades may just be the place to start the journey.
Shades is out tomorrow via Kranky. Purchase at Bandcamp.