It’s as if she took a previous Grouper album and stripped everything away, down to the bones, down to dust.
The 100-second opening track “Made of Metal” begins in silence. There’s a sense of ambient noise, but minus the noise. You sense you’re hearing the sounds of a place, but what you hear is mainly nothing; it’s the sound of existing. The sound of a quiet room. Then you hear a beat, almost like a heartbeat, though not steady or regular enough to be one. Still, you feel like you’re listening to yourself, nothing else. I think of people trapped in rooms, or a hermit in a wintery cabin. Liz Harris, aka Grouper, is immediately putting us in a place of intimacy, presence, minimalism. It’s as if she took a previous album -- 2013’s The Man Who Died in His Boat, for example – and stripped everything away, down to the bones, down to dust.
What she did, in reality, was put herself in isolation and record this album in essentially a single take, with a piano and a four-track machine. “The album is a document," she has written.
What that brief opening track does is set this scene up for us, in a visceral way.. When the next song “Cleaning” begins, we’re already focused on listening intently. We’re in the right frame of mind for close listening. So when Harris starts playing piano and singing softly, we’re straining our ears to hear what she’s saying. We can never fully grasp it – she’s trying to elude us, perhaps, while also bringing us into her confidence. We get wisps of meaning, yet the feeling of it all is overpowering, stunning. On songs like “Cleaning”, the genre she’s playing resembles an airy, amorphous spin on singer-songwriter/folk music, somehow retaining the immediacy of the genre even through the openness.
The strongest musical touchpoints for Ruins, for me, the music I keep relating this to in my mind are the piano-based songs on Lisa Germano’s last few albums and, for some reason, Sarah Winchester’s The Northest Kingdom Demos. Neither were likely in Harris’ mind when making Ruins, but it’s in the nature of the album to bring out our own personal touchpoints, along with our thoughts and feelings and experiences. It’s individual music that’s overt about putting us in a thoughtful mindset.
Ruins’ eight tracks include four with vocals and four instrumentals. Still, the tracks with vocals and those without are not very different from each other. Both rely on fairly simple melodies repeated like “loops”. Both offer feelings of extreme closeness, give the same impression of longing and consideration, and worry and tears. When she sings, we hear references to intimacy between people -- to letters and conversations -- but it all sounds in the past, in our memories. Love, and other aspects of life, are ruins we endlessly explore in our minds, for better or worse.. On “Holding”, she sings, “I hear you calling and I wanna go run straight into the valleys of your arms and disappear there.” The words make the emotions of the song more literal, but they’re there already. And in either case, with words or not, the mystery is intact and so is the punch.
The album ends with a straight-up ambient track called “Made of Air”. Throughout the brief album, ambient sounds are present. We hear a random beeping noise, something in the room. We hear a car alarm going off in the distance. “Holding” ends with a rainstorm or possibly the sound of someone taking a shower. Either one seems appropriate for such an intimate, atmospheric LP.