Shade album cover, courtesy of Grouper

Shade, the newest album from Liz Harris—known popularly (or, I guess, “popularly” for fans of ambient music) by her stage name Grouper—is fundamentally one of the most perplexing albums of her career thus far, introducing a variety of new elements to her well-established sound.

Liz Harris initially made a name for herself as a purveyor of noisy, ethereal, to-be-played-for-catharsis-while-experiencing-an-emotional-crisis ambient folk music. To create this sonic sensation, Liz utilized fuzzy effects pedals, reverb, acoustic/electric guitars, and, more recently, the piano. In fact, the introduction of the piano to Liz’s music resulted in what many consider (myself included) to be her finest and most emotionally raw album of the past decade: Ruins (2014). Ruins saw Liz completely drop the obstreperous feedback, field recordings, and guitars (save for the intro and outro tracks) for a sparse, closely mic’d piano. This allowed her songwriting, which is often obfuscated by her signature sounds, to speak for itself. Indeed, crawling into a ball in the corner of your room at 2 a.m. had never been so reassuringly intimate. 2018’s Grid of Points continued Liz’s use of the piano, this time incorporating unique microphone placements and noise to create a record that featured some of her most direct songwriting to date.

Enter 2021: Grouper has returned with an unexpected guitar album, the results of which, I must opine, are somewhat mixed. Now, before a cavalry of cable-knit-sweater-donning indie kids ousts me from my staff writer position, it’s important to elaborate that I really liked and enjoyed the album. I thought the change in Liz’s sound broke up a monotony that could have occurred in her discography, indicating that she is still looking to branch out and challenge herself as an artist, something I greatly admire. Though the first track “Followed the ocean” leads the listener to believe Liz is returning to her older sounds like the ones from The Man Who Died in His Boat, she immediately switches into a rapidly strummed acoustic guitar in the next track. I would have gasped at the sheer thought of such sonic progression, had I not listened to the singles the second they were released. Devoid of any reverb, “Unclean mind” invites rhythmic head-bopping that is not often associated with her music. The chorus vocal melody of this song is quite sticky and the tune has a fresh level of clarity, though her lyrics are as indiscernible as ever. Ultimately, this song left me intrigued to hear the rest of the album, but not necessarily satisfied. I had been accustomed to the fantastic melodic directness of Liz’s last two releases, and this song unfortunately did not completely meet my personal expectations. The next two tracks, “Ode to the blue” and “Pale Interior,” do not feature the same steady strumming of “Unclean mind.” Personally, I believe an album full of the rhythmic jauntiness in “Unclean mind” could have yielded weaker results for an album, so I am glad she returned to a few familiar sounds. These songs feature arpeggios on slowly plucked guitars, over which Liz Harris’s hushed mezzo-soprano glides gently, per usual.

After listening to these tracks, however, I was left considering the significance of artistic progression, especially when said artist’s former work is so fantastic. As a consumer of an artist’s work, should one take aesthetic development into consideration when judging the quality of the work? And my answer to that question is: maybe.

See, whatever the artist’s initial intention may be when creating a piece of art does not necessarily matter. Once it has left their brain and entered the sensory nervous system of the consumer, the artwork’s initial purpose of existence is no longer relevant, and instead takes on fresh meaning that each individual consumer assigns to it. This Barthesian (q.v. “The Death of the Author”) opinion means that, despite my love for Grouper’s music and respect for her refusal to remain artistically stagnant, it is also okay for me (and, more importantly, other fans of her music) not to love it. Though I think the final track “Kelso (Blue sky)” is a beautiful song, especially as it features Liz Harris’ unadulterated voice singing some of her most impressionistic and picturesque lyrics alongside numerous melodies I believe are pretty, I find my appetite for her gorgeous, bleary-eyed music to be unsatiated by this album— and that is totally fine.

Regardless of what I think of this record, Liz Harris will continue to make celestial, tear-duct opening music for a long time, all of which I will be excited to hear because (from the perspective of an artist) it is always important to create something you find beautiful, while as a consumer, it is always important to go into any artistic experience with an open heart— ready to be mended, tamed, or even slightly torn, because that is what art is.

Listen to Shade while drifting through the ocean of your thoughts here: