Liz Harris has described her upcoming Grouper album, Ruins, as “a document,” and though that’s a tricky claim in music — even a live record is an artful presentation as much as an objective archive — the record’s third track explains why she might be inclined to make it. Even when Harris’s music is stripped down to little more than her voice and an acoustic instrument, multi-tracking or reverb have usually kept her at a dream-like distance. “Call Across Rooms,” though, finds its distance through being so disarmingly upfront and plainspoken, and it’s breathtaking.
“I have a present to give you,” Harris begins, over the barest piano and tape hiss, “when we finally figure it out.” The effect is to put you there with her in a room as she communicates, in a half-dazed whisper, with someone who might not be getting the message. The context is the ambient minimalism of Erik Satie, but the soft understatement in those vocals keeps incongruously bringing to mind Sade or Tracey Thorn, while the analogue-confessional quality could potentially reach as far as the fan base of, say, Elliott Smith or Nick Drake. And yet these three minutes are so deliberately paced, so austere, that it still takes focus not to get lost in the mood and to keep track, instead, of what she’s saying: Even if they do figure it out, there will be scattered glass, and a space filled with that echo.
“The song is on one level very plain and literal, about a letter I wrote for someone I loved and could not get along with,” Harris told Vogue. “On a more subconscious, poetic level, it is a letter to myself, as aspiration to love better.” Part of the song’s power is in this uncanny valley between plain, literal expression and flashes of transcendence.
Ruins arrives on October 31 via Kranky.