Liz Harris’ music tends to present itself as a curious bundle of contradictions. In nearly two decades of recording music, through specific yet malleable approaches that range from gently stripped-down piano or guitar arrangements to more nebulous masses of drone, static and effects, Grouper has never fit comfortably in one specific musical sphere, whether folk, ambient or otherwise. Yet no matter how Harris deconstructs or reconstructs her sound, abandoning one approach or taking on a new one altogether, the result still ends up sounding inevitably, unmistakably like Grouper.
Shade, Grouper’s follow-up to 2018’s brief but beautiful Grid of Points, puts the extent of that idea on display through songs that reveal various stages and iterations of her sound at different, often distant points. It’s not an album that’s constructed in a way that we typically expect them to be; rather than entering and exiting the studio in a concentrated period or capturing a specific moment in time as an artist, Shade collects recordings from over a 15-year period. That fact alone might lend itself to the impression that Shade is a kind of career overview—a cohesive patchwork that acts as a summary of Harris’ music throughout that span of time. Which in some ways it is, from the hushed intimacy of her acoustic ballads to the distortion and static of her drone/psych era. Yet while her past two albums were based around piano and voice, this is a return to the hypnotic sound of guitars that once formed the core of her sound—and it’s a welcome return at that.
Though captured at different times in different places with different tools at Harris’ disposal, Shade is loosely bound by an aesthetic and emotional cohesion. These are songs informed by landscapes—of coastal Northern California and the Pacific Northwest—and they’re caressed by fog and drenched in rain and kissed by billowing campfire smoke. A heavy wash of reverb and distortion coats the out-of-focus opener “Followed the Ocean,” though the ache of Harris’ voice still comes through beneath the heavy layers of effects, while the stunning “Unclean Mind” is one of the purest pop songs she’s ever written, wrapped in nothing more than gentle strums and a hypnotically pitch-perfect vocal delivery. The material difference in how Harris arrives upon such a sound and that of “Basement Mix” is a difference of a few digital or analog signals, but the end result of the latter is one of being in the presence of something all the more mysterious and haunting.
Even when cloaked in layers of gauzy sound, Harris has always projected a certain intimacy in her music, perhaps an inevitable side effect of a solitary project, but that intimacy takes on a more romantic quality here. These songs evoke places, but they’re defined by the people in them (“You got the prettiest eyes/That’s not what I like about you“) or those she’s reminded of when they’re not around (“I’ve been thinking about the way the light gets lost in your hair“). There’s a sweetness to these songs—a celebration of and a yearning for closeness that doesn’t always come easy, even in non-pandemic times. But the familiarity she offers is always, intriguingly, far less than total. Just as often as she leans in, Harris reinstates that degree of separation, finding the shortest distance between gentle warmth and enchanting mystique in a way only she can.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.