By Jack Madison
Grouper’s new LP, Shade, is a collage of her unique sonic styles, where every song falls into its place with gentle sincerity. This variation makes sense, as Shade was recorded over a fifteen year span from Mount Tamalpais in northern California to the oceanside town of Astoria, Oregon. Grouper’s Shade can be a peaceful helping hand to those in need of an intimate conversation.
Discovering Liz Harris’ versatility as the mind behind Grouper a month ago was an introduction to many new paths, all ethereal and romantic. One night I plugged in my earphones and turned on Dragging a Dead Deer up a Hill, her third album, to drown out the sound of the infinitely spinning fan in my dorm that had been blowing since summer. At first I heard the familiar atmospheric melancholy of Mazzy Star and the nature-inspired drones of Phil Elverum. I would realize how special Grouper’s sound was as I drifted off. Her dark-purple whispers and hums were not only sublime, but Liz Harris’ holds enough subdued power to transport her listener to any environment she pleases.
Fifteen years into her career, it is fair to say that Harris is a master of creating atmosphere. On Shade, she first takes the listener out of reality with the disengaging track, “Followed the Ocean.” Similar in feel, “Disordered Minds,” holds reverb-soaked, ambient songs that follow much of Harris’ earlier work, acting as palette-cleansers to remind us of the altered plane of existence we will drift through for the duration of the album.
In the past, Grouper often sedated the listener with piano ballads on albums like Ruins. On Shade, she uses slow guitars, sometimes to hypnotize us into a world more peaceful than our own. The slow folky guitar on “Ode to the blue” and “Promise” do not create a sense of eeriness, instead one of curiosity and comfort. Like a child seeing the beauty in emotional connection for the first time, Grouper sings “you have the prettiest eyes… and I promise to take good care,” in the most simple, lovely way possible. The lyrics and instrumentals are stripped back, resulting in an intimacy and connection, as if we are in the room with Harris.
In the soft melodies of songs like “Pale Interior,” a highlight of Shade, connections between Liz Harris and her listener have never been stronger. We hear her conversations at the end of the songs and the somber slides of her chord changes. On “The way her hair falls,” Grouper is at her most human, she makes mistakes and restarts verses, but this vulnerability only brings us closer to her. It takes a lot for me to compare anyone to Elliott Smith, but the intimacy Grouper created on these songs mirrors Smith’s whispery vocal link between himself and his listeners on albums like Either/Or.
Grouper created an experience similar to rising and falling tides, where we drift further away during her dissociated songs and drift back during the folk ballads. Although we’ve been comfortable through this whole journey, “Kelso (Blue Sky)” is the final and most accessible song on the album; Grouper brings us back to land here, we can hear the faint hoots of owls. The listener has to allow themselves to feel rather than think while listening to Shade; this works as Grouper knows how to guide us into letting go of reality. Shade is a mosaic of Harris’ styles over the last decade and a half, and she could not have made each song fit with more ease and comfort. This album does not build a haunted environment or grand transcendental experience like some of her previous work, but it does allow the listener to drift away into a quiet state of peace for just a bit.