The standard line on any new Liars album is that the band will have tried something completely new. They’re always changing their sound. This escapism always seems to be directly related to the scene in which Liars came up—the NY post-dance-punk scene. Liars were always trying to get rid of that association—which is a good thing, since they’ve continually pushed themselves to be inventive. But still when we talk about Liars, there are consistent elements that make it recognizably Liars. For one, their albums are often difficult, demanding multiple listens before fully unfolding. The band has experimented with rhythm, instrumentation, concepts. But through it all, Angus Andrew’s voice, whether he sings falsetto (2006’s Drums not Dead), or in lower registers (2010’s Sisterworld), his melodies are uniquely his. Liars often employ a singsong melodic line, almost like a schoolyard taunt that is simultaneously creepy and catchy. And although the much awaited WIXIW is in some ways a complete departure for the band—it’s their first mostly electronic album—there are some consistent elements that make it very obviously Liars.
Creepy and catchy. WIXIW is pronounced “wish you”, and Andrew says that its palindrome brings together the beginning and the end of relationships—as he sings in the title track,”“I wish you were here with me…I wish you would not come back to me.” With the foray into electronica, Liars are both encouraging an easy closeness and going to further lengths to push back against easy connoisseurship. In tracks like the first singe, “No. 1 Against the Rush” (which has an unnerving serial killer video to accompany it), or even more so on “Brats”, Liars flirt with thumping club music. But they are careful not to let the mindless bass and beats pull you in completely. Whether it’s strange mumbled vocals, unexpected synth lines, field recordings, weird loops, whatever would make this album completely palatable is soon to be undercut.
WIXIW plays like a palindrome. The title track is in the exact middle, six of eleven songs. The midpoint song is schizophrenic, restarting in the middle, reworking the same rippling riff suddenly with a more exacting and insistent rhythm. Andrew and Aaron Hemphill took a new writing approach for this album that was more collaborative. Rather than come together with song ideas already in mind, the two holed up in a cabin for a month and went over each idea together. This minute attention is evident in the cumulative effect of the album. Though it’s in fact easy to listen to, it takes a drain on you, in its completion, since it demands you enter its tightly wound world. On the other hand, however, there is a clear division, even into each song, torn between structure and experimentation. On the first few listens, the poppier elements stick out. Some songs have memorable melodies, which are somehow also elusive. Tracks like “A Ring on Every Finger”, “No.1 Against the Rush”, and “Flood to Flood” sound familiar, like Liars tracks remixed. But often Andrew will push the vocal line just past the easily repeated phrase, so that it escapes quick comprehension. Over and over, it sends you back to start again as the strange texture of the album folds in on itself.
The album structure follows this split personality. Tracks five and eleven, the mournful, “Ill Valley Prodigies”, and the British invasion nod “Annual Moon Words”, are both based around acoustic guitar tracks. The first half of the album takes more time to develop—perhaps because we are first being thrown into this world, before the second half takes over and sets in comfortably with itself. Liars recorded WIXIW in a nondescript office building in L.A., so the album seems to follow quite nicely the L.A. dystopia of Sisterworld. Still, this album calls to mind internal paranoid, claustrophobic scenes (the whitewashed hallways of the video collages the band posted on their Tumblr as the album drop date approached) more than the scary, desolate urban cityscapes of the last album. This doubling also works for the band itself. Liars seem to take themselves utterly seriously all the while evincing a (sick?) sense of humor.
Liars learned new types of synth programming for this album, eschewing their typical instrumentation. Though they produced the album in large part themselves, they drew on the expertise of Mute Records founder Daniel Miller. There are rarely any acoustic instruments. Percussion is channeled through pedals and programs. Though this is a new area for Liars, they make references to other bands. Most salient is Radiohead. At first, this album sounds like Liars’ version of King of Limbs: it’s almost mellow for the often frenetic trio. But then the band mixes in portions of all of Radiohead’s work—though giving their unique twist on it, most obviously in the strangely singalong “A Ring on Every Finger”, where Andrew almost sings a Radiohead lyrics from Hail to the Thief‘s “Myxomatosis”: “I don’t know why I feel so…wet.”
WIXIW is another remarkable achievement for Liars. Their commitment to innovation is unique—though it’s smartly countered by good marketing techniques. They can sell their records. As they teased the last album with intriguing videos of themselves, they led up to this album with strange videos, most often of random objects like oranges, toys, distant airplanes, hooked up to microphones. (Or even a microphone in block of ice). The only drawback with WIXIW, which the band itself noted, is that the electronic “thing” is not so innovative at the moment. In fact, there are more and more albums completely constructed on computers. An album like Drums not Dead, which modeled typically electronic sounds with warped recording of real drumsets, is more exciting in the end. Still WIXIW is a fully realized vision, quite clearly within the spectrum of Liars’ experimental kaleidoscope. Liars take their music seriously as an art, taking their ideas to the limit, and it’s commendable. When you listen to their album, you know that you are in good hands, reaping the benefit of hard work and excitement.
// Notes from the Road
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