When dealing with someone as cryptic and perpetually uncertain as ambient musician Liz "Grouper" Harris, it would be too easy to simply write off The Man Who Died In His Boat
as a collection of B-sides from her 2007 breakout Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill
. Not to fault such a concept to begin with; the songs present here almost feel like they came from a completely separate album, with only occasional call-backs to compositions that would make the final cut and beyond. But in a way it feels like more of a re-imagining; taking the tone and core ideas of the latter, and giving them a new coat of paint. The album's production is reflective of the much softer and lightweight style that Grouper developed beginning with A I A
, as well as feeling noticeably less lo-fi in the long run with how much the folky guitars are soaked in ambiance and haziness.
"Vital", for instance, serves as an appropriate introduction to this new perspective; whereas Dragging
's opener "Disengaged" was an immediate gut punch of melancholy that informed us of the album's tone by way of harsh, reverbed guitar jabs and strained vocals, "Vital" provides a somewhat more optimistic outlook, gliding by with a soft guitar line that never falters and maneuvers around semi-intelligible yet comforting lyrics at a gentle pace. Generally speaking, this is a quieter affair. Everything is mixed at a lower volume and the guitars and vocals feel a bit more contained, bringing us closer and within a tighter space to Grouper's psychedelic folk tinkerings. Granted there are also instances where her signature drone sound from the three prior records is fully embraced, with tracks like "STS" and "Vanishing Point" taking the dreamlike nature of the folk tracks to their logical extreme, and providing for quite the relaxing soundscape.
But, as is the case with many of Miss Harris' works, at the center lies an emotional resonance that sticks with you, which is ultimately what elevates this beyond a remixed compilation. As slightly indecipherable as they may be, the supposed themes of religion, enlightenment, relationships and human nature can be somewhat unraveled on repeat listens, and make the album feel more whole, as if these songs were meant to come together all along. There's a faint relatability to her writings, a sense of longing to be heard that's held down underneath one's inability to communicate. "For all of us at this ill-fitting party/Busy pretending to relate/It is getting harder and harder to fake/Acting like everything's in its place"
she croons in album closer "Living Room", with some surprisingly coherent lyricism. In a way, the fact that songs like these, spurred off from the outtakes of a previous album, can feel so complete and complimentary towards one another, is a testament to Grouper's creative output, and a sign that the sky is hardly the limit as far as her talents as a songwriter go.