Available on: Mute LP
As misfits in a misfit scene; as itinerant interlopers in their various adopted homes from L.A to Berlin; as American rock’s eternally discarded, it’s as though, from their vantage point in the shadows, Liars have been able to quietly, without intervention or corruption, observe. To watch.
They watched as New York fell to James Murphy’s knowing artifice and the cult of hipster antipathy; duly skewering ‘New York Cool’ by beating the scenesters at their own punk-funk game, on debut They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top. They watched as Western forces slaughtered thousands in the desert wake of 9/11, employing on They Were Wrong, So We Drowned what a quipping Woody Allen once called “allegorical didacticism”; as the witches (the Arab nations) turn on the flaxen-haired townspeople (us) after years of persecution. In the wind, you could almost hear the back-echo of Jim Morrison’s absurdo-ironic mantra from all those years ago “The West Is the Best / The West Is The Best.” A prophecy of the dire repercussions that await us following decades of malign American foreign policy, They Were Wrong was the Pied Piper fable of politicised art-rock.
On Sisterworld, as (culture-shocked and) recent arrivals in the city, again they watched, as L.A. burst its seams, out of which spilt the other LA: L.A – “Hell A”. The arteries of a sun-blessed dystopia flowed profuse with dirty secrets and the subhuman armies of L.A’s multitudinous homeless. And in true Liars fashion, rather than shake their fists impotently, instead they became the beast; instead they metamorphosis into the taboo wrath of every unfeeling Angelino who was ever the recipient of a bad squidgy job. What to do with those inconvenient, starving vagrants? “Line them on the streets with a gun and then kill em all!”. California, Über Alles. As John Milius once wrote of Apocalypse Now, Liars are ‘anti-lies’. And to expose these lies they adopted the grotesque form of their enemies, like a musical pod-person. The Brooklynite art-rockers were the post-punk greats denied to kids only coming of age in the 2000s. The Suicide or Swans for a new generation.
There’s a sense that, almost single-handedly in millennial music, the New Yorkers have carried the burden of paying witness. For the last decade they’ve pulled the ugliest hypocrisies of the Western condition out from behind the red curtain, as music’s poisoned conscience; outing what Oliver Stone called ‘an America sick with madness’. Just call them the watchmen. At its most palpable on the electro-acoustic nightmare that is They Were Wrong, something ancient and crawling and animal writhes beneath the easy-wipe carapace of 21st life: “The Blood, The Blood!” beneath the gleaming tech. And it’s as if Liars alone can see it, with appalled fascination; so completely singular are they against the wider musical landscape.
The innate cruelty that veins their music – the weeping laughs and the gleeful be-careful-what-you-wish-for ire – goes way beyond the clichéd ‘queasy sense of unease’. What you were hearing was the acid intensity of a voyeur’s gaze. Liars are like ‘the thing’ that casts its cool eyes on France’s post-colonial guilt, in Michael Haneke’s Hidden, or the Pandora’s box in Kiss Me Deadly, emitting atomic dread in a conscience-nagging hum.
And the killing joke is: it’s really us they’ve been watching all along. You and I. And the nightmare is of our own making. It’s we who are to blame. Liars are S.W.A.T guy # 1 in Se7en, bending to the ear of the (not-really-dead) pederast and whispering “You got what you deserved.”
A lost highway spanning their debut’s ‘This Dust Makes That Mud’ to the final dusk of Sisterworld’s ‘Goodnight Everything’, consuming their back catalogue in one sitting reveals a staggered apocalypse in motion; years of contained menace and brinkmanship and a sense of something-wicked-this-way-comes. It was always one minute to midnight in Liar’s ghost-town. And then…the orgasmic release of Sisterworld’s doom-punk cataclysm, which blew the plugs out, forever, in a finale to rival the Book of Revelations, dazzling in both sweep and implication.
And what happens next, in the calm after the bomb, the peaceful desolation? Well, what is there left to examine, but the self. And, as a listener, you can’t help but feel a little shortchanged.
In order to turn their gaze inwards on WIXIW, an album about self-doubt, Liars have traded perverse magnificence for electronica, which, for reasons unknown, they’ve used to make a more low key album. But instead of adding depth, WIXIW’s pensive ways render the album relatively trivial. The reason being, in comparison to the business of slaying vast monsters of sin – gluttony, pride, envy – with at once barbaric and satirical songs….meditative electronica exploring the indeterminacy of human interaction, the mind and all attendant demons goes wanting in terms of far-reaching cultural resonance; or ‘importance’, if you will. You see, not only is the music of a more modest nature, but, whereas before they trafficked in the grandest themes, WIXIU takes on the less universal, arguably less ambitious task of peering into inner space. If it’s somehow perfect that such an impeccably righteous act would think it only proper to pass judgement on themselves – after a decade of the censure of others – on WIXIW they are, however, no longer absorbing, but reflecting. And unavoidably, naval-gazing is, by its nature, a more prosaic driving force. The result is a far less vital version of a band who qualify as amongst the most important, no necessary, of our time.
If there’s a dearth of conceptual gravitas, the same can be said in musical terms. As is commonplace when guitar bands try their hand at electronica, the results often lag behind the field’s cutting edge; contributing little of real importance in the wider context of music’s evolution. Which is all fine and well, unless the band in question happens to be one of the last remaining few to be saying something new, exciting, and provocative with traditional instrumentation. Granted, next to Sisterworld nothing, short of mastery, was going to shine the way it should, and this is a fine album – a stone-cold four-star gem. But revelatory it is not. And well.. .that’s just not like them.
An electronic, more measured Liars album, based around bleak personal uncertainty, is a mouth-watering prospect on paper – what you’d imagine to be something insidious and self-abasing and totally ace. But the reality is an obtuse and overly coy record. Reflective of its palindromic title, the default setting is ‘elliptical’. Always circling back intp itself, as such it’s an uncharacteristically taciturn offering. Not to mention a bit post-Kid A Radiohead-y. Opener ‘The Exact Colour of Doubt’, shimmers into existence on a bed of ambient synths and a slow bass run, before a delayed guitar tinkles above tapped drum sounds. If it’s pleasant, it’s also artistically slight, like something Foals would have offered up on their last album. Which is to say, it’s somewhat indie. Angus Andrew wrote it with a view to opening the album with it. And thats how it sounds – an introduction. But little else. Equally uninspiring is the electro-motorik ‘No 1. Against The Rush’ which, in another first for the band, sounds derivative; recalling Portishead’s ‘The Rip’ or a moony Fujiya & Miyagi. ‘A Ring On Every Finger’, meanwhile, works like Radiohead covering a They Were Wrong track, but with none of the penetrating subtext, They Were Wrong‘s uncanny insight into the inhumanity of cultural superiority. And, it’s taken them 12 years, but they’ve made their first tepidly M.O.R track, in the shape of closer ‘Autumn Moon Words’.
Whether by means of psychologically piercing imagery, seductive horror or sheer beauty, Liars always inspired some or other response in the listener; be it repulsion, reverie, fear, aggression or even numbness. But, throughout the majority of the tracks here, our visceral response is a faint one. With its polyrhythmic Flowers Of Romance-style trappings and classic Liars lyrics (“Teach me how to be a person”) ‘Flood To Flood’ doesn’t hold back. But neither is it the sound of a band obsessively compelled to question their reality. ‘His And Mine Sensations’ casts it net wider, whirling onwards and upwards on a four-to-floor beat and an increasingly chaotic mix of lysergic effects and Andrew’s melismatic vocals. But again, their newfound restraint seems complacent next to the material on previous albums, which although caustic and abominable seemed somehow more searching; musically as well as philosophically.
Yet even in times of peace, the warlike man attacks himself, as yon Freedo Nietzsche once wrote. Just occasionally, old habits die hard on WIXIW. ‘Brats’, with its fatalistic techno momentum and distorted vocals, packs that Jackal-like insolence and leering grin of old, while the title track is carried on a stock-Liars wave of carnivaleque madness, with disharmonious sequencers and whirling synths anchoring another ambiguous, conflicted essay on relationships. What Andrew describes as the “heart of the record,” the sonics alongside the telling refrain “I wish you would not come back to me” hint at that very post-punk conceit of the ‘fear of ownership.’ which accompanies any new relationship (if you’re strange, that is, as Jim Morrison put it).
The incantatory bent that’s defined their oeuvre: the trance-inducing percussion and the chant-like vocals – has always suggested the worshipping of some undisclosed higher force, be it the gods of consumerism, the Devil, Michael Gira, whichever. This time it’s a symbol – the one they invented as the album’s title – which they worship. According to Andrew, when rendered phonetically in Roman numerals (it’s pronounced ‘Wish You’) the word works as as unsettling rune; a bad omen arousing discomfort in the band with its superstitious energy. And apparently they liked this idea, which is typical of a band who, courageously it must be said, thrive in an enslaving climate of fear; like kids scaring themselves with horror films.
It’s precisely here, in WIXIW’s expression of fear, or rather the unstable chemistry of the emotion – it’s ambivalence; the (in)exact colour of doubt, so to speak – that electronica empowers them. The fluid, shifting possibilities of sequencers and drum machines make possible a stateless greyscale of sensations. ‘Octagon’ (sic), the album’s most eerie cut, deals with intimacy angst, with the certainty of guitar/bass replaced by a vortex of disembodied voice samples and falling, Persian modulations, as if committing to the affections of another is to traverse an alien desert from which you might never return. Either that or Turkish Delight is a band fave. Likewise, ‘Who Is The Hunter’ pits scuttling percussion against all kinds of stereo-spatial weirdness, evoking Andrew’s state of mind as a love affair gives him cause to stew over his own morality, like human proximity is a catalyst for despair. Is he the aggressor or the submissive: the hunter or the hunted? “I never meant to run / I only blew my gun to watch which beast it’ll arouse.” Pretty though it may be, its Swans-ian paean to evil, the proverbial beast, innate in every man, is discomfiting. Andrew should probably lay off the Dr Phil. Relationships shouldn’t be that complicated.
At other times, however, the fear element carries little resonance. Whether invoking LA’s walking dead on Sisterworld or murky alienation on Berlin-made droner Liars, the New Yorkers squeezed deeper meaning from an implied connection to real-world horrors. If Sisterworld was violent, that’s because greed, California-style, is violent. Yet ‘Ill Valley Prodigies’, a folk semi-instrumental with paranoiac field recordings which plays like Nordic ghost story – displays little of that subtext. It just seems creepy for the sake of it. Consider Drums Not Dead’s ‘Its all Blooming Now Mt. Heart Attack’ for relative power. It’s like comparing the hollow fake-wave of A.R.E Weapons to Suicide’s ‘Frankie Teardrop’.
Liars have always excelled when attacking (by becoming) the weaponry of fear – currently in mass circulation in FoxNewsWorld 2012 A.D. But WIXIW seems more concerned with fear as something which occurs only in the mind, rather than as a national disease. In an age when punk has lost its final vestiges of subversive power, only in Liars’ hands was rage still radical. But by taking electronic to mean, largely, removed introspection, WIXIX might be the one example of a guitar band who, by fully embracing electronica, have regressed. Open your eyes again, fellas. Keep watching. We need you angry.