To celebrate their reissue of 2008's acclaimed, widely beloved, and charmingly titled Dragging A Dead Deer Up a Hill, Kranky has concurrently issued this surprisingly solid companion album of unreleased recordings from the same period. Nearly all of these pieces adhere to Deer's aesthetic of strummed acoustic guitars amidst a warm, dreamlike haze, but the hooks are not nearly as strong or frequent this time around. With most artists, that would generally mean "these songs were not good enough," but Grouper has always been far more about atmosphere and mood than "songs."
This album takes its curious title from Liz Harris' teenage memory of an intact sailboat that mysteriously washed up on the beach with all of the owner's possessions still inside, but no trace of the owner. Such an evocative inspiration is quintessentially Grouper-esque, as Harris occupies a stylistic territory as melancholy, blurry, and enigmatic as a distant memory of the void left by a stranger's death. While there are certainly a number of structured songs to be found, only the achingly sad (and beautiful) "Living Room" fully emerges from Liz's characteristic fog of reverb and chorusing into clarity. The remaining songs are content to take shape fleetingly or not at all, resulting in a singer/songwriter album that sounds a lot like an ambient drone album or an unplugged My Bloody Valentine. Occasionally some understandable words, a strong melody, or an untreated guitar will appear, but the overall aesthetic is decisively warm and womblike (albeit with a lurking, omnipresent sadness).
Notably, there is almost no correlation at all between the success of a piece and how much of the original melody or chord structure is left intact or recognizable. While the aforementioned "Living Room" is probably the album's high point, many of the other highlights occur during the pieces that have been totally liquified into a blissful haze, such as "STS" and "Difference (Voices)." Both pieces are little more than layers of floating, indecipherable vocal cooing and a buried hint of a guitar, but they pulse and shimmer in a hypnotically sensuous way. Wisely, Harris balances her those abstract and narcotic moments with a bit of textural and dynamic variation, periodically employing driving acoustic guitars ("Cloud in Places"), quavering feedback ("6"), and plinking, decayed-sounding piano ("Vanishing Point").
In the past, I have felt that Grouper's signature blend of tape hiss, reverb, song fragments, and sadness was a bit too monochromatic for my taste, but I have since come around quite a bit due to a shift in my own perspective. Taken out of their greater contest, many Grouper songs can seem like little more than wordless sketches propped up by loads of reverb, but a broader look at Harris' recent discography evinces a deliberate drive to discard conventional song structures (and sometimes even words) in favor of something much more dreamlike and impressionistic. Still, Liz can craft a wonderful hook when she wants to, which is why It is easy to see why most of these songs were cast-offs from Dragging a Deer: the songs on that album offer much more in the way of immediate gratification. Despite that, The Man Who Died in His Boat is a remarkably cohesive and satisfying effort in its own right–it feels far more like a more abstract, varied, and experimental sister album than anything resembling a collection of outtakes.