Liz Harris always seems to be telling us a secret. The catch—and the thing that makes her music as Grouper so fascinating—is we’re never sure what. Titles like “Thanksgiving Song” and “The Man Who Died in His Boat” hint that she’s letting us in on specific moments and memories, but the lyrics lean toward abstraction, and that’s when you can make them out from behind a thick wall of reverb. From 2014’s Ruins onward, Harris has scrubbed away much of the grit from her sound, and it’s been a thrill to watch her music hint at candor before ducking back into the shadows where it thrives. Shade takes this knife’s-edge balance between intimacy and inscrutability to the extreme.
Many of Shade’s nine tracks feel like experiments in how much Harris can remove from her music while retaining its essential mystery. The album’s most notable development is to present her voice and acoustic guitar largely unadorned. The setting is so spare we can hear the buzz of the room and the squeak of her fingers on the frets. On “Ode to the blue” and “Pale Interior,” her words seem to dissolve as soon as they leave her mouth, and the faint slapback echo on “Pale Interior” puts an extra degree of separation between her voice and the listener. Even in such a raw and intimate context, listening to these songs still feels like entering an environment rather than being serenaded by someone with a guitar.
On the other side of the spectrum, we hear songs that retreat deeper into thickets of distortion than anything she’s made since 2011’s A I A. The album opens with “Followed the ocean,” and immediately she’s belting, her voice working with the guitar feedback to push the mix into the red. That song and the dramatically side-chained “Disordered Minds” sound like Laura Nyro singing from the middle of a maelstrom. We get all the ache of a great soul vocal without totally understanding what’s moving enough to merit such an emotional delivery. The contrast with the acoustic material is kind of funny, like Harris is playing with two ways of making sure her message almost gets to us.
A few tracks on Shade feel like love songs. That’s certainly true of “Unclean mind,” with its hushed and naked pleas. The repetitive guitar motions of “The way her hair falls,” in tandem with the oft-surfacing word “pretty,” make it feel as if she’s performing a tender and intimate gesture such as braiding a lover’s hair. But Shade seems just as interested in Harris’ proximity to nature. On “Kelso (Blue sky),” we hear an owl hooting in the distance (Harris likes serendipitous, non-human duet partners; remember the microwave on “Labyrinth” from Ruins). “Followed the ocean” feels buffeted by the elements, like a wanderer on a spiritual quest. And the omnipresent room tone on the quieter tracks alerts us to the presence of the vastness of the surrounding universe, just on the other side of the walls.