Throwaway Style: Grouper and the Comfort in Being Sad (Part II)

Throwaway Style, Local Music
Martin Douglas
Photo by Tanja Engelberts

Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every Thursday on the KEXP Blog.

Right Where the Deepest Currents Fall (2008)

I’m shivering and crying, trying in vain to sleep in the middle of the afternoon. Having a box fan running on high next to my bed doesn't help quell the shivering at all, but I like the breeze and can’t really sleep without the noise. The curtains are shut tight so that no light can enter. It does help that I’m in the warm embrace of a friend, of more than a friend, of someone with whom I’d had a very complicated relationship with for the past year or so. I’m feeling the lingering effects of a panic attack over some slight I’ve long forgotten a decade later, and along with the person sharing my bed with me, we’re lying in bed, listening to Grouper. She’s got her heavily tattooed limbs wrapped around me and her head on my chest, quietly listening to my sobbing.

For the sake of privacy, let’s call this woman Que Linda, which itself is a nickname she gave me for reasons too confidential and inappropriate to get into here. She was older than me by six years, but used to tell me our souls were the same age, over a thousand years old. I told her a woman from my childhood told me the same thing at a bus stop; a crystal ball dangled from her necklace and she tried to sell me an umbrella in the thick of a North Carolina summer.

Que Linda was clever and sarcastic, frank and honest. Her body language spoke in double meanings sometimes. Our favorite activity was to listen to music, have long, winding conversations, and drink away our problems. We were each other’s greatest reference for discovery when it came to music, heavily sampling each other’s record collections and mp3 folders whenever we would spend time together. I would familiarize myself with artists I knew by name but not by song; the Velvet Underground, David Bowie. (On her right hip was a tiny tattoo of the Ziggy Stardust thunderbolt.) She would pick and choose from the loads and loads of new music I was consuming; Vivian Girls’ self-titled album was a big hit during our drink-and-chat sessions during this period.

The day I heard “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping” for the first time, I sat in front of my computer staring off into space, the background of Gorilla vs. Bear shining in my face. I had just gotten home from another grueling night shift at the supermarket where I worked and would spend many mornings before I went to sleep surfing around music websites and reading magazines. The song felt both like a lost relic, once buried in the woods, and something completely otherworldly. There was just acoustic guitar, multi-tracked vocals playing off of each other, and a cavernous amount of reverb, though the latter didn’t do anything to detract from the intimacy of the former. In fact, in some weird way, the reverb increased the intimacy.

I became transfixed by Liz Harris singing of love, sleeping, and being carried away by or crushed underneath a tidal wave. There was a soothing feeling to the song, but as soon as it entered my ears and made its way to my brain, it evoked very strong images of being pushed for miles by forcible waters. I put the song on repeat and fell asleep.

When I woke up, I texted Que Linda: “You have to hear this song.”

As soon as Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill came out, our day drinking would be bookended by falling asleep sometime in the afternoon, curled up into each other, with the album playing out of my computer speakers on repeat. Sometimes we’d talk quietly while resting our heads on a shared pillow, sometimes we got lost in our own thoughts. I’d dream I was floating down a river, face up, watching puffy clouds turn black to the quietly clanging drone of “Tidal Wave,” or I’d feel Que Linda’s hand surveying the rising and falling of my chest while I breathed during “We’ve All Gone to Sleep.” The album would sometimes settle the disquiet of my thoughts, but only sometimes.

It’s peculiar how music serves as a balm for the psychological wounds life opens up. 2008 was a period where I still had nightmares tied to a pretty traumatic childhood, ones where I’d get shot for walking in the wrong part of the neighborhood or I’d get spotted in public by my biological mother before she would beat me to death in front of everybody watching.

But on the very many nights where I’d sleep while Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill played in conjunction with the loud hum of my box fan – when I’d hear the pretty-much-wordless “Stuck” or the soft singing and blaring guitar of “When We Fall” – I’d dream of being surrounded by trees and water, in the woods, with young girls hunting and rain falling. I’d dream of the brutal indifference of nature and be calmed by its presence. Brutal indifference is much fairer than active hostility, after all.

And It’s Getting Harder and Harder to Fake, Acting Like Everything’s in Its Place (2013)

About twelve days after The Man Who Died in His Boat was released, I myself was released from a mental health facility I had voluntarily checked into after being intercepted from a suicide attempt two nights before. As far as such things go, it was far from my first, but the person who showed up on my doorstep (a police officer named Val who I knew from her late-night visits into the supermarket during her shifts) took me to the emergency room before I could go through with it, possibly saving my life in the process. I was asked by a doctor if I wanted help and I said yes.

For the duration of my $110 cab ride from Redmond back home, I looked out of the window and told myself I couldn’t ever go back to that place. Aside from the food and lack of privacy, it wasn’t all that bad. But I knew I had to make a change in myself in order to preserve my life instead of carrying it out to an abrupt end in order to quell the commotion going on inside my mind, the trauma and tragedy cycling on an endless loop whenever I’d close my eyes.

At some point during my day-and-a-half at the mental health facility, I called my parents; my mom picked up. Not the woman mentioned earlier in this piece, but the woman who met my father in the army and married him a few years later, who moved with him to Washington State and made a family. Prior to this, we had a few heartfelt conversations about depression – she had her own experiences with PTSD having served in the military – so she knew a little about what was going on with me, though not as much as I could have told her because of my distaste of burdening other people with my problems or actively courting their sympathy.

My mom was naturally concerned for me, as most mothers, biological or otherwise, worry about their sons. The specificity of her concern was because she could see the potential for great things inside of me, but also the trauma and hurt and the self-destructive urge to make all that go away in one fell swoop. She was fearful I would self-destruct one day and my potential would waft away like exhaust smoke floating into the air.

Que Linda was very brusque and unsentimental about her past, like everything she encountered before whatever moment she found herself in added to her deep reservoir of pain, like pennies in a well. She was also a very private person; didn’t have any social media to speak of, didn’t like having her photo taken. She took her own life almost a year prior, after moving to New York for two years. I can’t tell you how, I didn’t want to know. To say her swift exit from my life had something to do with me trying to force my way off of this mortal coil would be an understatement.

After the long cab ride home, I turned on my computer, queued up The Man Who Died in His Boat, and collapsed into bed, relieved and exhausted. The comfort of my own bed hadn’t felt like a comfort in a long time. I felt enveloped in the drone of “Difference (Voices)” and struggled mightily to make out the words to “Vital,” the album’s title track and “Cover the Long Way” – the latter with its arresting vocals sounding both intertwined and completely fractured – over the familiar hum of the fan next to my bed. The plaintive vocal melody and harmony of these intimate-yet-distant songs – recorded roughly in the same time period as the ones which were culled into Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill – found a way to calm my ailing nerves. The way “Being Her Shadow” soothed me the weeks following this experience is difficult to put into words.

The sound and emotional impact of music is in the ear of the beholder, but usually it’s a little easier to pin down than Grouper. There’s more often than not a narrative going on in the lyrics or the music, a theme you can relay nicely alongside some digestible references or sub- and sub-sub-genres. Of course, the best critical voices dig a little deeper, but your garden variety music reviewer pretty much relies on that formula to get by.

Even still, I’ve seen some of the greatest critical voices of our time not even attempt to engage in this approach when writing about Grouper, because the music is without easy precedent or classification. Often, they end up writing about what they see around them; a scenic drive or a trip to the beach. The music Liz Harris has recorded under the Grouper name is so free-flowing and unencumbered by traditional structure that it makes sense to write about nature or feelings or dreams, because those are entities which aren’t governed by the rigid structure on which the rest of existence seems attached to like a ball and chain. It’s easy to focus on what’s going on outside of the song, which makes so many artists easy to write about. With Grouper, the song is all there is.

Today, the Land is Watered and Slightly Scarred (2018)

Earlier this year, a bunch of new changes hit me at once: a new job, shifting dynamics between myself and a few friends (both platonic and not-exactly-platonic), myself and family, myself and lovers. I was sleeping a lot and felt nervous all the time. Over the course of the five years since that expensive cab ride, both of my parents died. I began to heal wounds from the past as a means of survival, writing about how I’ve felt death has been around the corner since the age where I should have been exclusively looking around the corner for the ice cream truck. There is a solace in the idea that everything is temporary; a small space of solace, but a solace nonetheless.

I think a lot about when many of the people I love were still alive. When my dad would drink Budweisers to the point where he was just drunk enough to start quoting CB4. The time I took my mother to the VA in Seattle and made a day out of it; we had a very nice lunch. When Que Lina would randomly buy a twelve-pack of Tecate and we would be drunk by noon back when I worked the night shift.

Grid of Points from an aural perspective – from many perspectives, but especially aurally – is very similar to its immediate predecessor, Ruins, released in 2014, the year my mother died. It helps me step back and survey all the things I’ve lost.

The album starts out with a hymn of sorts, “The Races,” harmonic and driven purely by Harris’ voice. Much like Ruins, the empty space is an instrument all its own (an approach often used by her collaborator on Mirrorring’s 2012 album Foreign Body, Tiny Vipers’ Jesy Fortino) and makes the sweeping vocals sound like they’re being sung in a cathedral. There is a sense of melancholic purity on songs like “Parking Lot” and “Blouse,” a feeling of awe that as hazy as a lot of Grouper’s music is, it can thrive just as well under the blinding lights of stark clarity.

Grid of Points runs a brisk 27 minutes, which seems brief until it settles in how fully rendered these songs are. Harris has never needed a great deal of instrumentation to make her songs as Grouper work, which makes the found sounds on her records – frogs on Ruins, what sounds like a jet engine to open Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, the sound of a semi-truck pulling itself through the rain here – important components to the songs therein. The album pacing feels like the pacing of life itself; you're looking back at a complete statement and wondering how it all went by so quickly.

The album, from a purely personal perspective, feels like the denouement of a grueling decade of adult life, the quiet room the protagonist sits in after the blood has been shed and the bodies have dropped. I listen to it and watch the rain fall onto the street in front of my house, cycling back over a host of petty grievances, regrets, fractured relationships, and, of course, the people who were taken away from my life before they had a chance to glimpse my increasingly realized potential, before I had a chance to watch them cry or laugh or pour a glass of water or sit and watch television one more time.

Life is heavy, and with the weight of years passed it only gets heavier. There are heavy moments on this Grouper record and elsewhere (Cover the Windows and the Walls is a great place to continue your education in this deeply affecting discography if you’re unfamiliar with all its terrain), but much of it feels like an electric blanket covering you during a hailstorm. Comfort during a time of adversity, the comfort in being sad.

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Live and Loud: This Week's Recommended Shows

May 10: Horse Feathers and Dead Horses at Tractor Tavern

May 10: Preoccupations and Moaning at Barboza

May 11: The Black Tones, Tres Leches, and Moon Palace at Clock Out Lounge

May 12: MGMT and Molly Nilsson at Showbox SoDo

May 13: Joey Bada$$, Boogie, and Chuck Strangers at the Showbox

May 14: Washed Out at Neptune Theatre

May 15: Built to Spill, the Afghan Whigs and Ed Harcourt at The Showbox

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Throwaway Style Local Music

Throwaway Style: Grouper and the Comfort in Being Sad

Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the …

Read More