The Man Who Died in His Boat opens with “6,” a brief cloud of music created from sampled vocals and synthesizers swiveling through a mess of reverb, all of which goes tumbling into the murky, though far more reconcilable, folk of “Vital.” The sudden drop from electronic noodling into ascetic folk is severe, but somehow not out of place, and such is the enchantment of Liz Harris’ latest album as Grouper. The Man Who Died is an austere and overtly sullen collection of songs, but not one that should be confused as simple or easy. This is a soft album, but it is an immense and confrontational one as well, with much of its emotional power coming through strongest during the album’s supplest moments.
On the more vocal songs, like “Cover the Long Way,” whispers are layered until they reach the standard of acceptable human speech, often accompanied by acoustic guitars which sound like they’re being strummed with a deliberate (and disarming) lack of energy. For an album that seems to leave so much of its structure to chance, by way of unpredictable collisions in the reverb and delay, The Man Who Died ultimately comes across as very well constructed and straightforward. And this may the album’s one major flaw: with little effort being made to surprise or invigorate, the entire raison d’être of a particular song is easily looked over if one is not listening carefully enough. “Difference (Voices),” for example, tries to overwhelm with looped and delayed vocals and reverb, but it is the stunning simplicity of Harris’ muted guitar playing which gives the song its true momentum.
The Man Who Died is largely successful, though, due mostly to Harris’ capable songwriting and the close attention paid to tearing straight through the seems of her somewhat conventional instrumentation. It would be a mistake not to listen to this album from start to finish; there is a very deliberate, almost crippling, sense of structure to the whole thing. A song like “Vanishing Point” may certainly be listenable in and of itself, but it makes the most sense in the context of “The Man Who Died in His Boat,” which follows. Each song passes to the next over the background sound of river water, the wind, the ground; the relationships between the songs and their places within the album deserve as much consideration as Harris’ lyrics and songwriting.
A brokenhearted sounding album as suitable for academic listening as it is for effusive consideration, The Man Who Died in His Boat is absolutely a must-listen for ambient-folk connoisseurs and inductees alike. That this is Harris’ eighth Grouper album in as many years is not surprising; the impression you get while listening to The Man Who Died is that this is only a small fraction of the atmospheric power she has at her disposal.