Loops, Disintegrating: Grouper — Shade

The cover for Shade, by Grouper. 2021, Kranky Records

Even when a record is made up of material recorded over the last 15 years, Grouper finds a way to make it something new. Shade isn’t the first anthology-style release in the Grouper catalog; this approach may flash as lazy on the surface (and this may not be entirely unfounded), but the work speaks for itself. This is another haunting, deep-reaching record, from one of the more singular voices in modern music.

One of the standout elements on Shade is the production. The opening track, coated in so many layers of distortion it would seem like an ironic or experimental outtake from any other artist, cuts brilliantly into lead single “Unclean mind” through a simple fuzz overlay that lasts roughly a second. During “The way her hair falls”, there’s a full reason for a re-do, but Grouper chooses to press on, leaving us with a cozy smile you can almost hear over the tender guitar work.

Grouper’s work has never been preoccupied with perfection. Ruins, notably, features a track with a microwave beeping back to life (which is mighty distracting, especially if you’re the jumpy sort). Shade is a true embrace of imperfection. These tracks are hard, if not impossible to pinpoint by their time frame in the Grouper oeuvre—there’s no tell-tale piano to place them in Ruins, not enough layers consistent with A I A, any random rock tracks that might be Helen outtakesfor Grouper fans, in particular, this album is going to be a treat because of its flaws. A very advanced bug is often indistinguishable from a feature, as the old saying goes, and in the case of being a Grouper fan, part of the fun is sifting through the material to find the little hiccups, the little tricks, the dents in the indistinct car that make it your own, the one you can find in the parking lot at the end of the day, even through all the crowding.

A perceived sin of the recent Grouper records has been their length. Grid of Points clocked in at an anemic 22 minutes; one year later, Liz Harris’s side project Nivhek produced an album twice that length, in something of a reflexive laugh. At the same time, one of the more praised releases (and rightfully so) in the Grouper catalog is the Paradise Valley EP / single; merely two tracks, but enough to build a career on (if it hadn’t come in the middle years).

If Harris is just sitting on loads of material like this, we have years and years to look forward to. Shade, coming in at a svelte but punchy 35 minutes, proves the point made, but almost dodged, by Grid of Points; while it was released to fanfare, many critics also asked: “Is this it?”

Shade does two very difficult things with skill: it is an anthology piece that doesn’t feel like an anthology, and a short record that doesn’t feel like it’s letting you down. The run time ends up being absolutely perfect.

It seems impossible to be able to take everything working against this record (its anthology setup, the disparities in production, the gleeful use of errors) and turn it into something successful, but that’s part of the joy of listening to Grouper. By design, it shouldn’t work. Here are all these layers of fuzz and reverb; here are some half-mumbled, barely-recalled vocals; here are some guitar notes that ring more like memory than something new. The X factor here is Grouper herself, Liz Harris: the woman knows what she’s doing, and creates a vibe, to use a word-of-the-now, that is unlike anything else in music. To listen to Grouper is to be invited into the future of sound. If or when the aliens land and discover Grouper, there will be nothing to compare it to. They’ll draw lines between her and William Basinski, noting the shared DNA of her work with his masterpiece The Disintegration Loops, or her projects with collaborators like Xiu Xiu, but nothing conclusive and tangible will come to light. Grouper is Grouper and that’s all there is.

On another blush, maybe it won’t be aliens grappling with Grouper. Maybe Shade is another puzzle box just for the humans.

Written by Adam Witt

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