The Columbia River, one of the grandest and most revered waterways in the United States, having wound itself across sacred reservations, past the snowcapped peak of Mount Hood and through the areas many national forests each filled with giant redwoods and thunderous waterfalls, finds itself succumbing to the ocean at the picturesque clapperboard town of Astoria, Oregon. Eagle eyed viewers might recognise the waterlogged locale and its nearby Cannon Beach, dominated by giant rock promontories that materialise through the fog and block out the low winter sun, for their recent historical links to teenage adventurers The Goonies and sparkly day sleeper Edward Cullen, but by far the most captivating visitor has to be Liz Harris, who on her new record resurrects the Grouper name after recording 2019's After Its Own Death / Walking In A Spiral Towards The House release under the mantle of Nivhek, and delves deeper into the histories of the land around her. Longstanding fans will delight in hearing that these nine tracks, taken from sessions recorded over the last decade and a half at her Pacific Northwest home studio and at various art residencies she's attended or self-initiated around Mount Tamalpais in the Bay Area.
Liz Harris always seems to be telling us a secret. The catch--and the thing that makes her music as Grouper so fascinating--is we're never sure what. Titles like "Thanksgiving Song" and "The Man Who Died in His Boat" hint that she's letting us in on specific moments and memories, but the lyrics lean toward abstraction, and that's when you can make them out from behind a thick wall of reverb.
Not many artists could get away with piecing together new albums with over a decades worth of material, but there's no other artist quite like Liz Harris. The ever-ethereal Grouper is truly a universe unto itself, and what music we've gotten from the project feels like glimpses as to what the night sky allows. Shade, Harris' most varied release yet, feels like the broadest and most crisp view of this vista yet, with clear, starlit openings (Unclean Mind), vast ambient gaps (Ode to the Blue), and hazy nebulas (Disordered Minds) coming together to form a stargazer's dream.
Over the past two decades, Liz Harris has embarked on a series of northward moves up the Pacific -- Los Angeles, Portland and then further north in Oregon to Astoria -- implying a relationship to the coast that is at once deeply identified with it and without roots. Similar purgatorial circumstances haunt the music she makes under the Grouper alias, itself an allusion to Harris's childhood growing up in the Group, a commune inspired by the Fourth Way Christian philosophy of George Gurdjieff -- to being of a world without belonging to it.
Capturing songs Harris has been working at for 15 years and nearly as long as Grouper has been active, Shade, Grouper's 12th studio album and Harris's first since her 2019 offering as Nivhek, feels like a career in focus.
Anchored with a guitar and her voice, Harris is blessed with the gift of storytelling, but perhaps what's most striking about this collection is her ability to convey remarkable moments with essentially nothing at all. Even so, throughout an unwavering career, Shade encapsulates what we've grown to admire about Harris' work thus far which are confessional moments that somehow leave us feeling as though we just encountered something spiritual. Few artists are able to sneak by the way Harris has been able to.
Grouper hits differently: this is a known fact. The music of Liz Harris seems to tap some limbic accord, its density of humming waves and layers arranged in perfect formation to still and pacify the system. Whether witchery through sound or application of drone, it quakes on some root-level ley-line. It is the aural equivalent of being held in safe arms, of seeping in skin-touch water.