Liz Harris is the minimalist, ambient artist better known as Grouper. Her tenth studio album, Ruins, is a bare, raw, and hushed work that was almost entirely made in 2011 on a trip she took to Aljezur, Portugal. It was recorded on a portable 4-track, and one of the only instruments used is an upright piano. While living there, Harris found inspiration in the physical state of her surroundings. On walks, she came across the ruins of old estates and a nearby village. She describes the album as “a document. A nod to that daily walk. Failed structures. Living in the remains of love.” Ruins is emotional; a quiet anger, and a depleted form of what once was.
“Made of Metal” opens up with sounds of crickets and frogs; Harris brings you directly to the source of her time in Portugal. “Clearing” introduces Harris with her omnipresent piano and achieves an immense feeling of dread. It’s a heavy song weighted in a deep, yet subdued anger. Harris doesn’t deliver you her feelings easily. Her barely audible vocals make you listen closely, stretching your ear to hear her woes behind the piano. Her lyrics are the equivalent to discovering an old VHS home recording. You’ll understand the setting and roughly determine the time frame, but there are scratches and dust on the tape that muffle or completely destroy certain memories. On “Clearing,” Harris delivers a bone-chilling blow when she sings, “maybe you were right when you said I’ve never been in love.” It’s a devastating and harsh lyric that entirely summarizes the emotive quality of the song, even if her other words get lost. Harris challenges the concept of anger being equivalent to loudness and noise, and replaces that with a slow burn under the surface.
The standout single, “Call Across Rooms,” features Harris trying to find something to latch onto in the momentary reality of life. Surrounded by an echoing piano, you can hear Harris grasping for stability when she utters, “maybe we’ll figure it out.” It’s hopelessness on all fours. “Labyrinth” involves no vocals from Harris, but contains one of the album’s most visceral moments when a microwave beeps. She says that it occurred naturally “when power went out after a storm.” By leaving it on the album, she transforms something that is incredibly common to symbolize a fleeting memory and a signifier of a specific instance in her journey.
The close-proximity of the microphone to Harris’ mouth captures her incredibly soft voice as well as her slight breaths. You can practically hear when she opens and closes her lips. This unembellished recording style creates a nurturing element that is unique to Grouper. On the eight-minute “Holding,” Harris slightly lets her guard down as her vocals inch toward the surface. It’s a moment of clarity and enlightenment as she struggles to contain it: “I hear you calling and I want to go straight into the valleys of your arms and disappear there.” She is searching for permanence in a field of decay. As “Holding” is the last song she recorded in 2011, she ends her time in Portugal in a state of strength, but uncertainty.
In closing out Ruins, Harris completed her journey with a new song made three years later. “Made of Air” is a reflection piece that is as desolate as it is telling. Utilizing sounds from a thunderstorm, she comes full circle. The album opened up with sounds of the natural surroundings and now she is reflecting on that storm three years prior that made the electricity go out and the microwave beep. It’s deeply personal and the only song that doesn’t feature a piano, but, instead, is replaced with light synths. It’s a calming and intimate closing and an obvious break from the burdensome weight of the rest of the album. Ruins is a muted and gentle anguish tethered to the emptiness of times past, and it’s a stunning work that parallels Grouper’s 2008 breakthrough, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill.