Memphis, Tennessee’s Julien Baker released her sophomore record, Turn Out The Lights, via Matador Records in 2017. Follow her on Twitter here and Instagram here.
(photo credit: Nolan Knight)
Liz Harris, the songwriter and artist who performs under the moniker Grouper, is an expert in creating meticulous, ruminative work. Harris has described music as “something outside myself that tells me what it wants.” To her, to write a song is to become a medium: Grouper’s music is the search for a way to decipher and communicate emotions that seem otherwise incomprehensible; to make sound into its own language.
Grid of Points, Grouper’s most recent album, demonstrates the process of patient introspection—this is music that makes you want to sit with things. Each song takes its time, holding up the smallest pieces of a thought up to the light for careful inspection, sifting through the minutiae of a moment to yield kernels of untold significance. The subdued pace and mantra-like calm of the lyrics reflect the devotion and determination necessary for doing something that cannot be rushed.
Grid of Points employs minimal instrumentation and simple composition. To say that the record utilizes a limited instrumental palette is not to say that it is lacking; it speaks to the mastery of an artist whose skill is showcased in restraint. By constructing songs so sparingly, Harris is able to harvest the raw material of living and refine it to its most essential form, gradually revealing the artistic beauty contained within it.
Under a minute long and featuring only vocals, the record’s opener, “The Races,” is a prologue. The ethereal, spacious simplicity of the chorus signals the poignant minimalism which defines the rest of the album. Harmonies echo, giving the song an ancient, sacral quality, like a chant offered to guide the listener through a reverent ceremony of observance carried out through the album.
“Driving” and “Blouse” combine tranquil melodies with lurking turbulence. There is a tremor of disquiet beneath the requiem-like movements of the songs as Harris sings languidly over piano in almost free time. Diaphanous vocal textures and elastic structures progress not in a rigid, sequential organization, but with lifelike unpredictability. It sometimes seems that Harris chose to preserve these songs in their nascent forms to emphasize the mutability of musical expression — that the songs are still becoming, and are fluid despite existing on an album in a finite form.
The hesitant meter of “Thanksgiving Song” and dissonance of “Birthday Song” use quiet moments to suspend the listener in the tension of waiting. Creating music is just as much about arranging notes as it is the placement of silence: the rests between notes that shape melody. Grouper’s music balances those complementary opposites, negotiating the boundary between negative and positive space by accentuating sound with its absence. Our lives are comprised of transition, doubt, and uncertainty: the pauses between meaningful events are the adhesive substance made of self-discovery. The intermediary lulls are when we stop to examine ourselves and consider our positions in the world around us. Grid of Points intentionally draws our attention to the gaps and asks us to rest there.
The practice of mindfulness through reduction and simplification characterizes Harris’s work. Grouper’s intricately constructed soundscapes seem an attempt to transcribe feeling in a way that remains truest to their original essence by leaving intact the authentic ambiguity of thought, weaving pieces together so densely that the parts blur into one, thick, lush wall of sound. Emotions manifest in the very way they occur, producing music that is less like a narrative and more like aural set-building for the re-enactment of memory’s brief vignettes.
These performances have varied stylistically throughout Harris’s prolific career. They are in the the lush repetitions on Grouper’s seminal record Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, the experimental, trance-like synths of A I A : Alien Observer / A I A : Dream Loss, and the delicate, careful piano of Ruins. The many permutations of Grouper’s music all let the idea dictate the form, and Harris moves through stylistic periods as a craftworker, picking up new tools and testing their qualities to see how they shape the creation. Whether she is somberly wading through a marsh of guitar or skipping across bright, fragmented piano, Grouper’s songs map the mental environments their creator inhabits.
We cannot capture the story arc of our lived experience in a straight line, we can only observe isolated points in time and sketch a line of best fit. Grid of Points does this, too. It offers us a catalog of moments, collecting coordinates along the rough trajectory of a single person’s travels through space. It relays what has been seen and felt on an individual voyage through living. The result is something both mysterious and familiar, a beautifully human work that gives us something to point to and feel seen by one another as we move through the world, eking out our own jagged paths.