Music

Grouper’s Beautifully Ambient ‘Grid Of Points’ Will Leave You Thunderstruck

Tanja Engelberts

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In Astoria, Oregon there’s a bridge that makes the sky look like an afterthought. The first time I saw it, as a teenager rounding a bend in the road one foggy Oregon morning, I gasped aloud. It’s a bridge that makes the word thunderstruck ring silently in your head. Murky, sleek, magnificent, it surpasses the category of “bridge” and becomes a thing unto itself, a work of art — whenever I’ve seen it since, it feels like a friend.

Unfurled across a stretch of water so dangerous and unwieldy that any boat crossing the channel must be guided by a local vessel with intimate knowledge of the currents, the bridge is quite literally a lifesaver. It’s also an artery, keeping the already remote city of Astoria from utter isolation, connecting it to the outside world with graceful, shimmering inclusion.

The woman behind Grouper’s music, Liz Harris, reminds me of this bridge. Harris currently lives in Astoria, which makes the comparison easy, but her music has always dwelt somewhere between the foggy murk and the silvery connect. A Grouper song is a span of air that becomes a gateway. It is a tool, yes, but more than that, a Grouper song makes its own path. Grid Of Points, her latest song cycle, is a step out into the sky, an album that hangs in the mist. It doesn’t just float, it builds a path for you to follow.

Parsing my own sadness through a Grouper album has become a personal pastime, made easier by the outpouring of material from Harris over the last decade or so. Since 2005, she’s steadily released trickles of albums, collections of songs, and bits of flotsam, all coming on her own terms, all at her own pace. A Grouper album is done, according to Harris, when she finds it embarrassing.

“I think I’m embarrassed by everything I’ve ever put out,” she told Fact Mag just before the release of her masterful 2014 record Ruins. “That’s the sign it’s done. I like to feel some risk or sacrifice of ego is involved.”

That year, Harris had made an album she was especially embarrassed about, citing her issues to Fact regarding “how plain the emotional outpouring is,” and “how simple the piano melodies.” Reluctant to let anyone hear her new work, she says she called it “the adult contemporary album” during the year she worked on it, refusing to play it for any of her friends.

Of course, listening to the simple majesty of Ruins makes her pronouncement feel unfamiliar — are we listening to the same album? — but as far as lyrics and structure, it was certainly her most straightforward album to date. And when it comes to pain, the bluntest and most simple expression is often the most powerful. But if Ruins was her most highly-acclaimed album to date, this year, she has surpassed it with ease on Grid Of Points.

Although, a Grouper release is the kind of music that makes measuring music on scales feel obsolete. Even the title, Grid Of Points, pokes at some small measurement that’s disconnected from the songs. It is, instead, interested in pursuing enormous questions that defy numbers altogether. How much space am I supposed to take up? How am I supposed to feel about myself? What have I already messed up beyond repair? Why bother repairing it at all? Harris’ damp, ethereal songs evoke an inquisitive longing in me, an urge to look underneath my own layers, to see through my own murk.

These songs feel capable of listening back, they move their gills in and out with breath, they wriggle and ripple under your skin and down, inside of you. Iridescent, foggy, and unrelentingly sad, they aren’t lost in sorrow but swimming in it, finding a home there. Lately, I feel I am taking up too much space, destroying more than I can repair, stepping out into the air with no guarantee I won’t drop. Grid Of Points is a bridge across my own smallness, a protection, a thing of beauty, a lifesaver.

If you’re lucky, it will leave you thunderstruck.

A Grid Of Points is out now via kranky. Get it here.

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