By Rob Masiello
“I am a child, it is a gift that my mother gave me.”
The words in Grouper’s songs rarely rise above the fog of reverb. But when they do, the poignancy can border on unbearable. Even more so than previous releases, her voice on “Grid of Points” is almost entirely blurred, slurred, or barely there at all.
In a press release, Grouper (otherwise known as Liz Harris) explained that these songs were written over a week and a half in Wyoming, before she was interrupted by a fever. Perhaps coincidentally then, the recordings themselves take on a feverish quality, with her voice often collapsing onto itself in atmospheric harmonies. Then there are moments when her voice hardly seems to exist, instead a hollow sigh filling the space of a word. Her upper register is almost childlike, lending a pained immediacy to some moments unlike anything in her back catalogue.
It’s no less beautiful than her previous full-length “Ruins,” but lacks the romanticism of that landmark album. Although born out of isolation, “Ruins” was also something of a slow dance, aching with longing and love. Despite the sonic similarities between the two albums (both were written for piano, voice, and not much else), “Grid of Points” is much more inscrutable. Its beauty is distant and majestic, not intimate.
It is Harris’ utilization of space and silence that make her such a compelling artist. Overlapping vocal fragments fight for space on “Thanksgiving Song,” but the effect is somehow weightless instead of suffocating. “Driving” is almost cinematic, the soundtrack to a misty seacoast drive, with the phrase “how much I love you…” cutting through the atmosphere. The burden of memory hangs heavy over every note, reminding of passersby who slip in and out of life too easily.
The most striking track is “Blouse,” because Harris lets a listener get unbearably close to the song without fully opening its doors. Her voice ascends skywards as the melody barely unfurls enough to take shape, but the whole moment is whisked away just as a listener begins to grasp it. There is no manipulation, and no payoff, just the empty structure of something not quite formed.
The album’s brevity is worth noting, with all seven songs barely stretching beyond 20 minutes total. While there is beauty in impermanence, that isn’t quite the effect here. Its briefness is solemn and unyielding in the way that childhood seems to exist indefinitely, until suddenly it’s over too soon. Though abbreviated, it is complete; it is finished.
As a whole, “Grid of Points” is one of Grouper’s more challenging artistic statements, although far from impenetrable. It is perhaps her most nostalgic music, evoking memories faded by time and distraction. The final track “Breathing” is as close as the album comes to a lullaby, before being swallowed by (what sounds like) the harsh mechanical whir of a passing train. The abruptness of something beautiful being hurried away.