Grouper makes music that sounds the way abstract expressionist paintings can sometimes look: At first glance, perhaps neither seems to have much to say—endless swirls of paint caked atop one another and blocks of color bleeding into each other, versus threads of cooed vocals suspended between lines of smoldering electric guitar and slowly played piano. Maybe it all seems too formless or casual, something that exists but has very little to say about the act itself. But then you immerse yourself in it, staring at the painting from several perspectives or closing your eyes and listening to the layers of sound at work. In both situations, shapes and meanings begin to emerge, floating from the void until they seem obvious and permanent, as if you’d barely been looking all along. You feel charmed, wowed, floored.
Under the name Grouper, the enigmatic Liz Harris has been refining and reorienting that aesthetic for nearly twenty years. After a childhood spent in a California commune, Harris moved up and down the country’s west coast. She self-released a self-titled CD-R in 2005, steadily following it with a series of LPs that seemed to refract little pop melodies or gospel hymns through imperfect prisms. Harris’ voice hovered in an electric haze, with a panoply of pedals flattening the sound of her guitar into a crackling smear. The songs seemed to exist in the distance, like a painting where some central figure has been covered or corroded but still lurked there in the shadows.
Over the years, Harris has alternately allowed those figures to step toward the foreground or recede even deeper. Her breakthrough, 2008’s transfixing Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, let her lyrics flirt with scrutability, with beautifully mumbled melodies and distant harmonies rising through a web of strummed acoustic guitars. Released five years later, its companion, The Man Who Died in His Boat, was even more exquisite and entrancing, with its dream pop meditations kept at such a perfect distance the listener wanted to lean in more and more. In recent years, Harris has turned to the piano, tucking her lyrics just under its lingering notes on 2014’s Ruins and this year’s brief but stunning Grid of Points. During its seven songs, you hear bits of lyrics from scenes you may recognize—driving through a tunnel, smelling an incoming storm, seeing a friend from a distance. But it all remains slightly obscure, like a fantasy whose meaning you’re left to tease out for yourself. On record and in concert, Grouper’s music demands that you sit and listen, to tune out the multiplying distractions of the outside world until shapes spill out of the ether and the art and your environment merge into one. The results are some of the most captivating listening experiences of the last twenty years.