In my mind, experimental/ambient artist Grouper has produced one of the most underrated and under-appreciated tracks of the year. On one of two LPs she released earlier this year is the song "Alien Observer". Neither of these albums appear on Metacritic, demonstrating the lack of coverage this has gotten in the press.
The haunting title track helps form one-half of A / I / A, the other being Dream Loss. The song begins like many Grouper songs with reverb-laden keyboard and guitar. After what seems like an eternity of meandering in the most captivating way possible, Liz Harris (the sole auteur behind Grouper) delivers the song's devastating opening lines. "Look into the night sky, looking toward the big lights." Like everything else in the song, Harris' voice is drenched in reverb. This especially serves as an interesting counterpoint to a song so intent on remaining alone. The best Grouper songs of the past have been about this sort of longing and isolation ("Heavy Water") and "Alien Observer" is no different. So, when Harris can be heard backing herself, the isolation is even more intense. With the vocals, it's as if Harris can only take respite in herself. At the song's end however, Harris dashes any chance of that by despondently acknowledging she's an, "alien observer in a world that isn't mine."
What makes this track great though is more than just the music. The accompanying video perfectly plays up the isolationism, weariness, and yearning that pervade the song. After a series of cryptic opening images, we see a woman looking longingly out a window, waiting for her love to return. That love returns and the two lovingly embrace surrounded by water. When the two finally kiss, dark liquid spills forth from their mouth and we are rapidly transported to dark forest. Here, we see the pair essentially buried in the ground. Eventually, the red-headed woman rises forth again and kisses her love once more. This passion is cut short and both are drug back down into the ground. The red-headed woman fights through the leaves once more and we see her now alone. Exasperated, she stands up and forces a melancholic smile, as streaks of color dot her mouth. The video then washes out and we are left with a final wave of water.
All of this adds up to something more, but what? Is Grouper suggesting that one can never truly belong or be loved, that such things are temporary? There is great evidence for this in the video, but not so much in the song. Does she view love as conquering such isolation? Is this why, the woman rises one time final time so beautifully? Has she won out against all odds? If I had to pick, I would go with the sense of isolation, both in love and in life as a whole. Tellingly, the beautiful of her first kiss is juxtaposed with a horrific black liquid spewing forth. The song then, as well as the video is so brilliant because it is something anyone can relate to, those times spent in the dark of night, peering out in the night, hoping to quell our isolation, "looking out to be free."
"Alien Observer"- A / I / A- Alien Observer