Liz Harris reportedly wrote the bulk of ‘Ruins’, her third album under as solo act Grouper, on a Portuguese escape in 2011. It’s said she left her native Portland to process discrepancies both political and personal. The result is breath-taking. The music of ‘Ruins’ serves as a diaphanous veil between the audience and Harris’ inner monologues. The sound is simple and modest, but what is there is as about as illuminating and moving as art, never mind just music, gets.
Until her previous record – ‘The Man Who Died in His Boat’- Grouper utilised mostly rhythmic acoustic guitars and soaring, hymnal melodies to engage with her preoccupation with the morbid and morose. The skill of ‘Ruins’ is its ability to transform the static into the vibrant. The majority of the album exhibits only the simple combination of Harris’ delicate piano playing and hushed vocals. Indeed, the sparseness is such that background noise such as rain falling, household items thudding and microwaves beeping can be heard intermittently. Despite the paucity, her arrangement allows the music to transcend a mere listening experience and float freely in the liminal of consciousness. Like certain particles in quantum physics, Harris’ sounds are able to be in infinite places at once.
In an age of heavy texturing and processing, the delicate and authentic realism of ‘Ruins’ is reminiscent of the proliferation of the 19th century piano music of Schubert, Debussy and Satie in the face of more bombastic symphonies. The moments of quietude are as crucial as Harris’ caressed chords and aching melodies. Like her decision to seek solitude away from home, the record’s strict omission of any superfluity enables Harris to achieve a stark clarity and palpable connectivity. On ‘Clearing’ and ‘Labyrinth’ her reverberating chords and meandering melodies have a reedy, oriental feel about them. The successful ‘Engravings’, by Forest Swords, also deployed this to create a similar equilibrium of soothing ominousness.
But it’s Harris’ lucid and laconic lyrics that renders ‘Ruins’ so intimate. In a press release, she described the album as a ‘document’ of her ‘political anger and emotional garbage’. Her turbulence is reconciled into surgically efficient phrases such as ‘Every time I see you I pretend I don’t’ and ‘we move in circles’ that are as universally resonant as they are Harris’ own personal conclusive musings. The pained murmurs and incremental, metronomic chord progressions are dialectic in the way they waltz together towards harmony. Thus ‘Ruins’ is an incredibly communicative album – an example of how an artist can embody and reside in their art in the most authentic way.
‘Ruins’ is an album that goes beyond its obvious lugubriousness and is vested in a place of unembellished profundity. What Harris conjures and creates with just a piano and her voice marks her out as one of the stand-out solo artists of contemporary music. Her songs are as aesthetic as anything done by Justin Vernon and as evocative as anything done by PJ Harvey. ‘Ruins’, by its simple beauty and elusive physicality, should be revered as one of the finest records of the year, if not the decade. As an exhibition it is perfect, and it can be returned to over and over again.