Many artists, spurred by critical acclaim for an album, feel compelled to subvert listeners’ expectations with a radical departure from their sound, whether because they are emboldened by lavish praise or because they are determined to avoid being pigeonholed. However, following the success of her 2008 release Dragging a Dead Deer up a Hill, Liz Harris of Portland Oregon, aka Grouper, has chosen the path of consistency. Her latest LP, The Man Who Died in His Boat, sounds similar to its morbidly-titled predecessor. Fortunately, it is no less inviting.
“Vital,” one of the album’s most memorable tracks, begs the question “Just what is it about Grouper’s music that is so engaging?” Like the musicians from which she draws influence, the answer lies in internal contradiction. Her voice is a heady, inviting blend of opacity and unbridled emotion, like a ghostly fog drifting over a river. Or perhaps it is the way she strums her guitar: simply, hypnotically, yet with a sense of inscrutable purpose.
“Vital” does not possess conventional hooks, nor is it musically complex. Its melody is simple and Harris’ guitar playing consists of soft subdued strumming, sending ripples through the subconscious mind of the listener. This, in a nutshell, constitutes Grouper’s unique form of sonic impressionism. She is less a songwriter than a repository of amorphous, mystical energy.
Something about the repetition of the enigmatic phrase “I’m vital” draws the listener in. To whom or what is the songwriter vital to? Herself? Or perhaps she is channeling the psyche of titular man, fated to die on his boat. Then again, maybe the subject is not a human being, but a concept. The intrigue of the song lies not so much in answering this question, but in the fact that it is unanswerable. Grouper provides no hint of her subject, but the emotion embodied in the phrase — which gains in urgency with each utterance — is endlessly seductive and compulsively listenable, a testament to the undeniable talent of a unique musical voice.