Grouper – The Man Who Died In His Boat (2013)

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Due to an early leak, it’s time to cover our first album of the new year with Grouper’s The Man Who Died In His Boat.

Originally made to be a sister album to her seminal 2008 release Dragging A Dead Dear Up A Hill, TMWDIHB is being released 5 years later to accompany its rerelease. My initial expectation was that it would retain a similarly vocal heavy sound that that early album pushed forward before her music became more gauzy and lo-fi; there are still elements of this sound but it definitely has that sparser style she’s been using lately.

While it’s not obvious with the short opener “6”, “Vital” begins introducing the vocals and their characteristically spacious, dreamy obscurity alongside the minimalism of the reverbed guitar, its chords seamlessly gliding into one another and breaking only briefly, intermittently, as her fingers slide sharply down the frets. “Cloud In Places” follows it up and lives up to its name a great deal; this time the vocals and guitar are switched, with her soft voice almost completely unintelligible and  buried under the clouds that the now clearer folky guitar has brought to the fore.

The album has a number of more introspective moments where the music turns around and becomes stripped back (if that’s even possible, given that there are only ever two facets to the sound); “Being In Her Shadow” has a very strong AIA vibe, ala “Dragging The Streets”, but it doesn’t come across anywhere near as dark and is far more quiet in its minimal drone guitar. “Cover The Long Way” reinforces the idea of her voice as an instrument or a texture; despite there being a good marriage between her and the guitar there is no lyrical value to the words she sings, the words are employed simply to complement the rich, guazy music that underlies them and believe me, the music would be nothing without those dreamily reverbed words. This is clear again in “Difference (Voices)” where without the processed drone of Liz’s voice the guitar work would be tiresome to listen to.

“Vanishing Point” is a sweet if heartbreaking interlude, taking what sounds like a piano to the brink of destruction as its gentle keystrokes are distorted into piercing, shimmering pinpricks in a sea of low-fidelity background fuzz, seguing into the awkwardly starting title track but moving gracefully into a piece that features multiple, overlapping Elizabeths crooning over one another disharmoniously, each one singing in a muffled and buried tone as though under their breath and to themselves. “STS” brings us back to some soft and hazy processed guitar drone in the penultimate track as Grouper begins to wind down and draw the curtains on this sombre affair, bowing out to what sounds like heavily damaged waves breaking on the shore before closer “Living Room”decides to leave us confused with its straight up, no frills Folk as we finally see both Liz and her guitar without any distractions or processing.

TMWDIHB is a peculiar album; it retains a more classical Grouper approach to the music in the occasional clarity in its vocal delivery but seems to also compliment this sound with a newer one that focuses more on stripping back everything to the brink of destruction and boiling it down to a rich drone fuzz. There are elements from all her works here; whether this was a cornerstone of her evolution or just something modified in retrospect it makes no difference, it is a wonderfully and unsurprisingly gorgeous record tinged with sadness.

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