On Being Alone: The Wild Landscapes of Grouper's 'Ruins'

How Cheryl Strayed's 'Wild' and Grouper's 'Ruins' offer a new narrative of being alone.

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06 January 2015, 10:00am

Most of us are not alone very much. We go to school or work, we have a family and friends, we spend our time on social media. Humans are social creatures, and society encourages socializing. We're repeatedly reminded that to be alone is to be lonely and to be lonely is to be sad. We're frequently discouraged from dwelling on the state of our soul. Even when we self-examine, it's often in the context of other people: How do we get over an ex? How do we process our relationship with our parents? What happens to us when a friend dies?

Our lives are full of other people, and our music is even more so. The places where we enjoy music are concerts and clubs and parties. We consider the default musical endeavor to be a band or at least a producer and a vocalist working together, and we’re excited by artist collaborations. My go-to music critique is to call it boring: Who wants to share a song with someone else, let alone put it on at a party, if they're not excited by it? There's a lot of music for being alone—whether it's about feeling lonely or simply better enjoyed as a “headphone album”—but the idea of this music is generally that the music itself offers a kind of companionship. If we're feeling lonely, we can listen to someone sing about feeling the same way and, well, two is company. But music that's simply about being alone, that's specifically interested in the experience of isolation, is quite a bit more rare.

Recently, I've been captivated by two works of art that focus on the language and experience of solitude: Cheryl Strayed's popular memoir Wild, which documents a trip hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail and which was recently adapted into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon, and Grouper's album Ruins, which she mostly recorded in 2011 while staying at a house in rural Portugal but just released last year to substantial critical acclaim (including the number four spot on our own year-end albums list).

On the surface, both feel like fairly familiar pieces of work. Wild follows the traditional arcs of redemption memoir and Romantic nature writing: The author goes into the wilderness as a way to cope with a series of personal traumas, and, we assume, she will emerge 100 days and 300 pages later with a sense of enlightenment, healed by her time in nature. The writing is direct and breezy. Wild doesn't seem like a book that's fundamentally unusual—its central narrative is literally linear—but it's nonetheless arresting and inescapable, its strange rhythm one that I found myself missing for days after finishing it. Like Strayed describes of herself on the trail, I would get caught up in the vision of being alone that the book offered. Its frequent guests were welcome, necessary, but ultimately incidental players in a slowly unspooling narrative that was my own, locked in that headspace with the narrator. Wild is not a lonely book; it's an excellent book about being alone.

Ruins has a similar effect. Its narrative—holing up in some remote creative retreat to write a deeply personal album—is familiar in art, and its minimalist sonic palette leans on well-worn tools: piano, blurry vocals, tape hiss, and ambient noise. But Ruins is entrancing. It draws you into its hermetic world, it walks you through physical space, and it evaporates, dream-like, if you try to focus too closely. It offers the experience of being alone and thinking, of letting your mind simultaneously wander and fixate on ideas or phrases that disappear almost as soon as they arrive. In this way it is stunning. I've been returning to it again and again, and it does feel like a physical return, to inhabit this little world of solitude.

I really like being alone; I find it liberating rather than lonely to be able to escape into my own thoughts. The subtext of Ruins is clearly sad, but it’s not lonely. It captures the specific mentality of someone who is purposefully being alone. That approach is refreshingly unconventional—as Brandon Stosuy recently wrote about the album for Pitchfork, it's “also political music in that it reminds us we can absolutely unplug and live simply if we choose.”


Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail, courtesy of Cheryl Strayed

Stories about heading off to be alone often end in redemption: Think Saint Augustine renouncing sin in the wilderness or Bon Iver becoming famous after writing his album in a cabin. Wild and Ruins also break this convention. They can be interpreted as redemption stories, but both ruminate more than they provide answers. At the end of Wild, Strayed hasn't really resolved anything about her future, but she has come to a state of acceptance and settled into herself as she processes her various traumas. In the same way, Ruins doesn't give us much of a conclusion—with its fragmented vocals, even finding much of a narrative is guesswork—so much as a sense that we have accompanied Liz Harris and existed in her solitude and let go of something with her as she closes with the words “there's nothing left to hold.” The album is a place where you can go, a feeling that's underscored by the ambient spells that open and close the album and that set it apart in its own world.

Another piece of literature that captured my imagination in the past year is Jeff Vandermeer's sci-fi horror trilogy The Southern Reach. These books, too, are in many ways about a narrator's (or multiple narrators') escape into a wilderness and process of grappling with perhaps unresolvable questions. One of the threads that quickly emerges is that travelers who go into the small, mysterious area where the books take place, Area X, always return to the same landmarks despite the misfortunes that seem to be attached to those locations: a base camp, a “topographical anomaly” or “tunnel,” and a lighthouse. Even though we never get a clear sense of why they are so significant, these landmarks loom over the story and over the characters' imaginations. There's a sense of this feeling in Wild, as upcoming towns take on totemic significance and the fragments of nature alongside the trail “felt familiar and known, though I'd never passed them or crossed them before.”

Ruins feels like this, too. You get to know it the way you get to know a small patch of land, when specific trees or rocks begin to stand out. The same moments became landmarks, while other parts of the album seem to always blearily slip away. You wait for the beep of the microwave caught on the recording of “Labyrinth” and the roll of thunder that closes out “Holding.” You're aware of a physical space that corresponds to this music. There is, at the center of the album, like in Area X, a lighthouse. At the same time, they don't necessarily mean anything. The centerpoint of the album for me is “Labyrinth,” which, true to its title, circles around on the same instrumental phrase without escape until the welcome laceration of that microwave beep. It doesn't end up anywhere; it just gets cut off.

The more I listen Ruins, it feels not only like a trip into a mental space of solitude but a trip into the specific individual experience of processing change or, in particular, trauma. As we process these things, we tend to build up little narratives that we keep repeating and circling back on. We draft point-by-point lists that we repeat like mantras. We reassure ourselves the same way over and over again. We keep bumping our heads up against the same set of facts or personal truths, and they don't resolve into anything. But then, as we let go, certain facts become more indistinct—the letter that we had to give someone is there, maybe, but we forget what it said—and that terrifying or frustrating landscape becomes well worn, its landmarks there but inconsequential (ruins, you could say). It’s reassuring to find music that reflects this feeling, that’s not afraid to take a walk alone just for the sake of it, that leads us somewhere without going anywhere in particular.

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