I suppose I have been a devoted Grouper fan since sometime around 2008's Dragging A Dead Dear Up A Hill, but there was a long stretch during The Reverb Years in which I was genuinely mystified by the outsized reverence that people seemed to have for this project (very similar to my experience with The Disintegration Loops, though I love several of Basinski's other albums). In more recent years, however, I have become considerably more convinced that Liz Harris is some kind of iconoclastic visionary (albeit a very slow-moving one), though I am not sure if she is shaping the culture so much as providing a much-needed corrective to its rapidly accelerating and tech-focused trajectory. While my initial impression is that this 12th Grouper full-length is not quite as uniformly strong as some other Grouper albums from recent years, that is less relevant than the fact that it continues Harris's trend towards more intimate, emotionally direct, and beautifully distilled songcraft. In that regard, Shade gives me exactly what I want from a new Grouper album: at least one song that is an absolutely devasting gut punch on the same level of "Parking Lot" and "Living Room." To my ears, that album-defining gem comes in the form of the folky, bittersweet closer "Kelso (Blue Sky)," but there are probably a couple of other sublime and/or unexpected gems destined for semi-permanent heavy rotation in my life as well.
I was a bit surprised to learn that Shade collects songs spanning 15 years, as they convincingly feel like they all could have been birthed from a single extended flash of inspiration in a remote cabin (most pieces feature only hushed vocals and an acoustic guitar, though tape murk is definitely a recurring feature too). According to Harris, "this an album about respite" and "the coast," as one of Shade's primary themes is how our memories, experiences, connections, and selves are shaped and framed by place. Fittingly, Shade was recorded at various places along the Northern California and Pacific Northwest coasts (including a "self-made residency" on a mountain).¬† Stylistically, this is one of Harris's more nakedly "folky" albums, as there is plenty of fingerpicked acoustic guitar, tender vocal melodies, and a minimum of effects (just flesh, steel, and wood, basically). The album is broken up by a handful of pieces that feel more like soundscapes, but that is mostly because they are songs that are so blearily lo-fi and tape-distressed that they cross over into semi-abstraction.
Happily, some of those hiss-ravaged pieces turn out to be surprise album highlights though, such as the opening "Followed the Ocean," which resembles an achingly gorgeous and ghostly '70s country gem heard through a blown-out car radio. Elsewhere, "Disordered Minds" feels like a killer dreampop song absolutely smothered in tape murk and possibly played at the wrong speed, but it still manages to sound like heaven in spite of that (it reminds me of Russian Tsarlag, but warm and beautiful rather than rotted and disturbing). As far as the more "straight" material is concerned, I am similarly fond of "Pale Interior," which feels like a hazy hypnagogic cover of a Vashti Bunyan classic. That said, the inarguable centerpiece of Shade is the aforementioned "Kelso (Blue Sky)," as the tape fog finally dissipates to reveal a moving and sublime near-masterpiece that feels like I died and woke up in a heaven where Nebraska is a Hope Sandoval album rather than a Bruce Springsteen one (and I love that I can hear every single scrape of Harris's fingers moving across the fretboard). Naturally, all of that adds up to yet another great Grouper album, but the real magic is that Harris's recent work somehow feels like something else altogether (something even better), akin to a getting a long unexpected letter from a beloved yet elusive friend that I am never quite sure I will hear from again.
Samples can be found here.