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Grouper: A I A

Grouper: A I A

Listen to A I A from the safety of your home and you can embark on a terrific journey without moving your feet.

Grouper: A I A

4.75 / 5

A I A sits at the dark heart of the Grouper discography. Do not expect an easy, comfortable experience; this is a place to get lost. Though 2008’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill and its immortal “Heavy Water (I’d Rather Be Sleeping)” are the easy ways into Liz Harris’s enviable catalog, those wanting to dive off the deep end should come here. To call it her best album undervalues both the depth and richness of her work and the devotion of her fans, five of whom might have five favorites. But it conjures an older, weirder, darker magic than anything else she’s ever made, and even those who love it might admit to feeling a bit uneasy about it. Beneath its rainy beauty thrums something fearful.

A double album-but-not-really, A I A comprises two 40-minute records released on the same day in 2011. Dream Loss is smudged and dense, while Alien Observer is airy and melodic. As befits the nature of vinyl, the albums have been reissued separately, but the best way to enjoy them is together, and Dream Loss should always come first. As soon as the guitars of “Dragging the Streets” enter, smearing reverb like black paint, we’re in her world. Few ambient albums so completely swallow us from their opening note; it’s as if the path behind us has suddenly become overgrown and there’s no way to go but forward. It might make more conventional sense to have Alien Observer’s “Moon is Sharp,” maybe the ultimate Grouper track, open the album and segue into the comparatively pop “Alien Observer.” But it’s a welcome reprieve from the density of Dream Loss, as if we’ve suddenly stepped into a starlit clearing after stumbling through the woods without a flashlight.

“Alien Observer” is an outlier on A I A in that it’s the only one where we really understand what she’s saying. It’s also the album’s weakest track. “Gonna take a spaceship/ Fly back to the stars/ Alien observer /In a world that isn’t ours,” she sings. It seems goofy, innocent, E.T.-ish, and though there’s nothing wrong with that, the idea of an alien observer comes across better when you stare into the cover art, a black-and-white starscape. Doesn’t it look like there’s something staring back? That impression is pervasive on A I A. Harris’s elusive voice always seems to emanate from a few blocks away, like the flicker of a distant streetlight. Listener and singer circle around each other, never really meeting, and we can’t tell if she’s following us or if we’re following her. When she wants us to know what she’s saying, she does. We hear the title of “Dragging the Streets” and the alarming insight, “they’re getting closer.” But though these scraps of comprehension tantalize us with the possibility of a mystery to crack, it’s safe to say no acolyte of Harris loves her music because they understand what it means.

Much of Grouper’s appeal is in her balance of intimacy and inscrutability. Her more recent piano-based albums Ruins and Grid of Points have some of the lo-fi “realness” of a Mountain Goats album while only abstractly allowing us to inhabit the artist’s emotional state, and on Ruins you could actually hear the creak of piano pedals and the beep of the microwave in her home. A I A trades in the language of obfuscation and distortion, and it’s by no coincidence one of the most electric of her albums. “I Saw a Ray” emerges abruptly from the end of “Dragging the Streets”—it sounds a little like it could be another section of that latter song—and disintegrates so gradually into noise we don’t even realize how powerfully it crescendos unless we skip halfway through the track. “Vapor Trails” gets great mileage out of the electrified crackles and hisses that arise out of her acres of echo and reverb. Even closer “Come Softly (For Daniel D.),” mostly voice and electric piano, gives less the impression of being stripped-down than of disappearing into itself.

A I A is not intimate. Intimacy implies comfort, certainty, understanding. A I A is like being lost in an unfamiliar town at night with a dead phone and nowhere to sleep, wandering deeper and deeper down moonlit streets. Because it’s so vaporous, we might check it out once, enjoy it immensely, forget about it, return to it, and experience what seems to be a totally different album. Each new listen seems to open up new paths and side streets and digressions and diversions, which only contributes to the frightening sense that its world doesn’t end at the 80-minute mark. Few ambient albums this side of Gas’s Zauberberg suggest such infinities. Listen to A I A from the safety of your home and you can embark on a terrific journey without moving your feet. Take it on a midnight walk and you might be tempted to not come back.

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