In the accompanying material for The Man Who Died In His Boat, Liz Harris describes a memory in which she and her father witnessed a sailboat that had washed ashore unmanned. Its missing captain, presumed dead, “had simply slipped off somehow,” she notes, adding that she was worried about “violating some remnant of this man’s presence” in witnessing his absence. Harris’ best work as Grouper, 2008’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, carries aspects of that impressionable moment, a fragile beauty swimming in the midst of a hazy uncertainty. Released along with the re-issue of that masterpiece, The Man Who Died In His Boat collects unreleased songs written in those sessions, a second delirious breath of that mystic fog.
While previous Grouper albums showed crystals of “song” in the lo-fi reverb soup, the melodies on Dragging a Dead Deer floated a little closer to the surface — Harris’ songwriting chops suddenly a proven commodity alongside her foggy atmospheric prowess. The startling “Being Her Shadow” matches the highs of its sister-disc, with waves of music and vocals overlain into one flowing mass. “Cloud In Places” recalls highlight “Heavy Water/ I’d Rather Be Sleeping”, a simple swath of acoustic guitar and siren vocals masking the spectral depth below, the billowing melody doubling as a harmony to the scrape of Harris’ fingers over the frets.
Though drifting through The Man Who Died In His Boat at times feels melancholic, like the icy piano in the negative space of “Vanishing Point”, portions of the oceanic expanse ride on relatively warm currents. The slinky guitar and dozens of rich, wordless harmonies on “Difference (Voices)” hit an ecstatic multitude, and the vocal coos of “Cover the Long Way” flutter too high to sink. But this is an album that follows the drifting of a boat at sea, and discovers that even the most pleasant journeys can end in nothingness.
As such, closer “Living Room” stares mortality and absence in its face, much like she did in the accompanying story. “I’m looking for the place where spirit meets the skin / can’t figure out why that place feels so hard to be,” she lulls, the loping acoustic neap and white noise wash letting the question linger. Rather than be pulled into the darkness, Harris boldly searches for meaning in this gorgeously reproduced world.
Essential Tracks: “Cloud in Places”, “Being Her Shadow”, and “Living Room”