Grouper Experiments with the Decomposition of Traditional Songwriting Forms on 'Grid of Points'
On her first album since 2014's Ruins, Liz Harris draws on bittersweet memories for a batch of aching and intimate lo-fi piano songs.
Grid of Points
27 April 2018
Among the more compelling artistic reconfigurations in the last decade is the one undergone by Liz Harris's experimental Grouper project, which in 2014 with the album Ruins saw Harris shift from more nakedly experimental, future-facing acoustic-ambient compositions to embrace classically-oriented singer-songwriter conventions, albeit stripped to their skeletal core and blanketed in the natural reverb and lo-fi hiss appropriate to her legacy. Now, on her latest record, Grid of Points, Harris continues to tread the path she set out on with Ruins. The album, like its predecessor, is centered on piano and voice, glued together with strands of silence and slow-to-materialize chord progressions. The timelessness of piano ensures music that resonates with the past in a way few other instruments do, and so it's fitting that, on Grid of Points, Harris uses the piano to deconstruct the past.
Despite their sonic similarities, Grid of Points offers a wholly unique experience from that of Ruins, particularly in regards to theme. Ruins was enriched by its immersion in an authentic, lived-in environment. Harris cultivated domestic character through the incidental noises of living hidden under the reverberations of the piano: a chair creaking under shifting weight, a microwave beeping in the background, rainfall against a window, the distant croaking of frogs. "I left the songs the way they came," she said about Ruins. "I hope that the album bears some resemblance to the place that I was in." That environment was both veiled and vibrant on the record, an aural backdrop that acted as both evidence of a human presence and a reminder of its place within the abstract forces of the world. It was music eagerly shaped by the ambiance of existence — an ode to fullness.
Despite the more exacting name, Grid of Points is far less interested in rendering muted impressions of physical spaces and instead bent toward seeing traditional songwriting forms through the process of careful decomposition. The "ruins" of the album aren't the semiotic representations of homes and personal spaces of its predecessor, but instead fragmented versions of broader cultural comforts: piano ballads, hymnals, and lullabies, all abbreviated, compressed, or otherwise in a state of decay. Grid of Points sees human memory and emotion tied inextricably to that classical musical framework, and it captures both the wonder those forms evoke and their limitations in equal measure.
The album achieves this by being relentless in its pursuit of the unresolved. Listener expectations are upended at least once in each song, whether it's due to a melody that doesn't land where it's supposed to, an abrupt truncation, or a drifting tempo. "Thanksgiving Song", for instance, dissolves in an excruciating two-minute fade out. The gorgeous opener "The Races" cuts after only 50 seconds. It's not clear until 20 seconds later when the haunting "Birthday Song" has ended. The drawn-out spaces between the chords on "Blouse" are tantalizing in their emptiness. Harris is constantly challenging the logic of compositional, structural doctrine, unraveling the comforting essence — the completeness — of traditional piano music, and yet she does it subtly, true to the placid and humane underpinnings of the songs. The record itself is only a scant 21 minutes long, and it closes out with the sound of a passing train, indicating both a return to the concrete world and a nod to the transient nature of expression. The record's quiet voids will never be filled.
Throughout the record, Harris overdubs her vocals with harmonies wrapped around each other in an ethereal state of muted tension (most notable in the rising fog of "Birthday Song"), and, as in Ruins, they're tethered to the piano melodies. Both her voice and the piano are persistently on the verge of breaking down, and when occasionally one does, as when Harris's voice drops out briefly near the end of "Driving", the sense of incompleteness is overwhelming. Harris is toying with that innate longing in humanity, goading the need for complete satisfaction.
Perhaps the most conventionally constructed song is the single "Parking Lot", the imagery of which induces thoughts of an actual, concrete place, one which is empty yet non-solitary — a temporary meeting ground without meaning. "Driving", too, evokes the concept of moving and passing through something, of being in an inconstant state. "I am a child / It is a gift that my mother gave me," Harris sings on the song, drawing on motifs of generational cycles, nostalgia, and the temporality of life. "Thanksgiving Song" and "Birthday Song" also speak to fleeting — but ostensibly more meaningful — experiences. Are we meant to understand these as Harris's fractured memories, the kind that sticks in our heads for reasons we can never understand? It's impossible to say. Ultimately, this is a record that is felt intuitively rather than understood.
That gets to the very heart of Grid of Points, which is, by design, infinitely elusive. The record finds Harris mapping a chart of nostalgia through familiar and warm songwriting, dulled in the gray haze of lo-fi production. It's an incomplete geography of an intimate human world, filled with songs channeled from misremembered and not fully understood remembrances of family and youth. Harris revisits the design of Ruins and guides it into a new form, one that's less immediately fulfilling, yet more stimulating, in a strange way. It's an album that's truly broken and poignant, and, most importantly, one that teaches us to see the beauty in our limited view.