The inspiration behind The Man Who Died In His Boat, Liz Harris's latest album as Grouper, merits re-mentioning. As a teenager in Oregon, Harris visited the recent wreck of a sailboat with her father. The boat had drifted back to shore after being abandoned by its owner, for unknowable reasons, at sea. In her brief account, Harris recalls feeling disturbed by her voyeurism, viewing the remains of the owner's life within the cabin. The album was recorded alongside 2008's Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, based on the similarly morbid adolescent experience of, well, dragging a dead deer up a hill.
That album was Harris's critical and commercial breakthrough, an anomaly in her catalog and perhaps her finest moment to date. This is because it found her flirting with accessibility, both in terms of song structure and the record's overall structure. Harris frequently seems to exist within hermetic chambers of reverb, and while still quite foggy, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill represented a de-smudging. Her mind was suddenly penetrable—more than her usual forbidding drones, placid guitar strums were prevalent throughout the album, and on key track "Heavy Water/I'd Rather Be Sleeping," one could even sing along with a hook, as Harris mumbled, "your love is enormous/it's lifting me up." Moreover, the album appeared as a flowing suite, with each track merged with the next. When those hooks did appear, it was as though they were in relief, hovering above the artist's signature, particularly Cascadian ambience. That signature being as strong as it was, her subsequent efforts have been unequivocally beautiful. But the record's opiated pop dirges have been in short supply, typically coming one or two per effort, and never chained to the narrative with the same emphasis. The Man Who Died In His Boat, then, is the artifact fans of that album's sound have been waiting for.
It delivers on at least one front. The sound of Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, or at least of Harris circa 2008, pervades. The songs have the same insular, filtered shiver; the guitar is tuned similarly, strummed similarly. Furthermore, this is an album of Grouper songs, and ought to appease those who are less charmed by the artist's more ambient work. Of course, these songs are fairly ambient as well. They're delivered with a hushed patience, and their elements blur together in a drowsy trance. Even when she is definitely singing words, Harris' voice frequently functions as a kind of pad. This characteristic is fully exploited on "Difference (Voices)," which is all layered glossolalic coos and softly twanging guitar.
A few tracks seem like aborted experiments, albeit delivered with the artist's signature. The resonant piano on "Vanishing Point" feels uncharacteristically upfront, though it's eventually softened by delay trails. Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill casts long shadows over some of the opening numbers, a few of which sound like castoffs from that record. Delivered without that album's self-contained narrative (even if that narrative seemed only vaguely related to its titular story), they begin to meander. Granted, meandering is part of Grouper's charm, but The Man Who Died In His Boat, at least initially, plays like more of a collection than a story.
Harris absolutely remedies this in the final section, however. The stretch from "Towers" through "STS" features some of the most convincing deployments of her somnolent sound to date. On the brief "Living Room," she delivers a piece on par with the aforementioned "Heavy Water/I'd Rather Be Sleeping," or her most recent definably pop tune, "Alien Observer," from 2011's A I A : Alien Observer. As on those tracks, her voice thrusts above its sedative backdrop, and her words about "pretending to relate" point to a truth more universal than the album's foundational teenage memory. Harris sings, "I'm looking for the place the spirit meets the skin/Can't figure out why that place feels so hard to be in," and her description of an "ill-fitting party" comes across like a tranquilizing panic attack, or a sedative prayer for comfort (or at least a sudden bout of narcolepsy). The record may not be Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, but pieces like "Living Room" are the essence of Harris's singular oeuvre.