I made the mistake of trying to listen to this album through my computer speakers. Grouper’s ambiance needs to be an immersive experience during which there are no outside noises competing with Liz Harris’ ambient specter. Harris’ most recent project, Mirroring, a collaboration with fellow acoustic space cadet, Tiny Vipers, is a true celebration of atmospheric spirituality. Luckily, The Man Who Died In His Boat brings Harris back to earth long enough to drape a thin shroud of innocent longing over subdued chords, seemingly plucked by nervous hands.
Harris’ signature incantation seamlessly flows through The Man Who Died In His Boat, appearing just long enough to haunt her music and leaving just as you start to grow fond of her. Harris’ attention to every element of her music is what keeps the focus of her audience. When she strums the same note for an entire song, she does so intentionally.
Grouper wields the same sparse, winding vocal performance as Julianna Barwick; one where lyrics take a backseat to the aesthetic beauty of her voice. “Vital” finds Harris on the verge of hymnal self-actualization and, combined with the light strum of an early Cat Power demo, her unintelligible murmurs reach a solemn finality. On “Being Her Shadow,” Harris sets an eerie, sweeping melody that sounds dismal and somehow natural. However, “Cover The Long Way” provides layers of Harris’ voice actually pushed outside her waif-like delivery, as if admitting that there’s a human beneath the shroud after all.
The exact label for Grouper’s music is complex but, oddly, Harris differentiates herself from her peers by crafting the appropriate atmosphere. It’s not enough to mix quiet vocals with music. Including the soft hiss of the recording device itself creates another element, like on “Vanishing Point,” which sounds like Harris’ spirit tap-dancing on a musty piano. The key to enjoying this record is having headphones that immerse you into the tracks because, frankly, this isn’t an album, it’s an experience.
On paper, Grouper might fall into the same experimental acoustic category as countless dorm-room outposts but the simple fragility of her music is the spectacle. Harris’ unique ability to guide ostensibly aimless music is impressive and bold, especially when her releases are so far between. The Man Who Died In His Boat is a somber affair but it offers a deep experiment in the construction of sounds.