The word ruins typically connotes a condition of architectural collapse and destruction, but it can also just as easily allude to a damaged psychological state. That would seem to be the case in Ruins, the latest collection of hypnotic songcraft from Liz Harris under the Grouper name, given that the modest recording, by her own description, finds her processing “a lot of political anger and emotional garbage.”
With the exception of the closing piece, “Made of Air” (recorded at her mother's house in 2004), Harris recorded all of the songs in 2011 in Aljezur, Portugal during a residency provided by Galeria Zé dos Bois. It's about as naked a set as one could imagine: recorded with nothing more than a portable four-track, Sony stereo mic, and upright piano, the forty-minute mix of instrumental and vocal songs captures Harris documenting experiences such as daily walks, “(f)ailed structures,” and “(l)iving in the remains of love.” Such details convey the impression of someone bruised by struggles, romantic and otherwise, and attempting to make sense of and recover from it using creative means.
A sense of place is established at the outset in the opening instrumental “Made of Metal” when cricket chirps, bird caws, and dog barks are heard alongside a stark, droning pulse. At the opposite end, “Made of Air” closes the album with eleven minutes of hazy dreamscaping in characteristic Grouper style. It's the vocal songs that are more affecting, however. Her tremulous voice is so hushed during “Clearing” and “Holding” that one struggles to decipher the words she's singing. But even when the songs' lyrics remain opaque, their lilting melodies are so haunting it hardly matters. Though slightly darker in tone by comparison, “Call Across Rooms” proves to be as lovely, as is “Lighthouse,” which, in classic Grouper form, casts a potent spell in its simple yet stirring vocal and piano presentation. The experience of listening to her music is like having some long-forgotten memory re-emerge and swell in elemental power as it comes slowly into focus.
Bolstering the already intimate quality of Harris's work is her decision to present the material in undoctored form, pretty much the way it went down (no attempt was made, for example, to eradicate the microwave bleep that appears near the end of the piano instrumental “Labyrinth”). When she states, “I hope that the album bears some resemblance to the place that I was in,” we obviously interpret that to refer to something more than just the geographical locale where the recording happened.