Most of Liars’ music following debut They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top seems to have deliberately, sometimes aggressively, avoided classification. This effort is both understandable and advisable. By charting its own path, the band has completely outpaced most of the bands that belonged to that manufactured “dance punk” grouping that was so heavily hyped in the first half of the last decade. Liars’ adventurousness stands in contrast to the career of “dance punk” alumni the Rapture, which more or less lost its groove after one middling but mystifyingly popular single (Echoes‘ “House of Jealous Lovers”) and LCD Soundsystem, which continues to milk a predictable sound, to many critics’ delight. Neither forgotten nor propped up by good will, Liars has explored a wide-ranging series of musical impulses, and the results are always compelling.
The band is at its best when inspired by a physical space or overarching concept, and Drum’s Not Dead, Liars’ 2006 masterwork, benefited from both. Recorded in several rooms of an East German radio center, Drum’s Not Dead told the story of characters Drum and Mount Heart Attack. Modifying drum kits and shifting singer Angus Andrew’s voice into a falsetto, the album drew in all the right ways from a decidedly non-punk branch of 1970s rock and made remarkable use of rhythmic and vocal interplay. 2007’s Liars was less cohesive than Drum’s Not Dead. The self-titled effort included a mishmash of approaches and was overall propelled by a few tentpole songs like “Plaster Casts of Everything” and “Freak Out”. Unfortunately, these songs diverted attention away from the more sublime tracks like “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Protection”.
With Sisterworld, Liars moves into the kind of conceptual territory the Mothers of Invention explored on its own Freak Out! in 1966. That Frank Zappa-led album was a rabblerousing send-up of past, present and future rock and roll culture, centered in Los Angeles. Tellingly, the sleeve of the original release featured an advertisement for a “Freak Out Hot Spots” map, aimed at those planning to visit the city. The map jokingly (and menacingly) provided an alert about “where the heat has been busting frequently” and “tips on safety in police-terror situations” and encouraged the listener to “hurry” because”this map has no commercial potential.” Sisterworld similarly investigates and attempts to understand the social and artistic landscapes of Los Angeles, but with an even higher degree of suspicion and paranoia.
According to the band, the underlying concept of Sisterworld is the creation of survivable spaces within a city that both shatters the dreams it promises and discourages expressions of negativity. That description seems like a dangerous psychological brew, and the band completely succeeds at evoking the frustration and desperation of the characters one would find in such an environment. In this way, Sisterworld is more of a mood swing than a mood piece.
The phenomenal “Scissor” opens solemnly with a beautiful choral section, led by Angus Andrew sounding more than ever like Nick Cave. Strings and a piano then join the layers of voices, and just as the listener is certain that this is the most delicate the band could ever sound, a wall of distorted guitars and drums emerges from nowhere. This is a startling development within an otherwise serene song, yet it is emblematic of the surprise attacks the band employs throughout the album. It is difficult to think of another recent album that used so many seemingly irreconcilable elements to such a coherent end.
In addition to this series of far-out choices, another common aspect of these compositions is a heavy reliance on low-end sounds. While Drum’s Not Dead featured rhythmic experimentation with drum kits, Sisterworld (like Blur’s Think Tank and Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR) foregrounds the bass guitar. “No Barrier Fun” is built around a bass riff that underlies percussion and a string section that delivers a hypnotic sway — a sort of chamber music variation on “The Streets of Cairo”. The album’s difficult middle section makes use of the low end most notably on “Drip”, which bombs the bass amidst a variety of droning mechanical textures. “Proud Evolution” continues the drone and combines electric and synthetic bass to fantastic effect. Although most of “Scarecrows on a Killer Slant” has a post-industrial music pulse (think Lard), the song plays like a psychotic outgrowth of Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn Theme”.
Another pattern on the album is to use electric guitars most forcefully for mid-song crescendos. “I Still Can See An Outside World” and “Goodnight Everything”, like “Scissor” before them, include some impressive bursts of distorted guitar, but neither of these songs matches the impact of “Scissor”. An additional development worth noting is the band’s association with Thom Yorke, which seems to have started when Yorke championed Drum’s Not Dead all over the place a few years ago and officially continued through tours and remixes. Perhaps unconsciously, elements of middle-period Radiohead have now popped up in Liars songs. This is not a bad thing, as there are far worse influences a band could adopt, and especially because Liars match the influence with an equal measure of invention. “Drip” shares some textures with “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors” and “Proud Evolution” picks up the rhythm of “There There” and marries it to the lyrical cadence of “The Gloaming”.
Lyrically, Sisterworld is perhaps Liars’ most violent album. The band’s songs have previously included references to dead and/or buried bodies, but this album is almost entirely preoccupied with death. The subject of “Scissor” is an imperiled female figure whose bleeding body is “dragged…to the parking lot”. In the functionally hypnotic “Here Comes All the People”, which incorporates number-counting and whispered suggestions, Andrew repeats the phrase “counting victims one by one”. Most violent of all is “Scarecrows on a Killer Slant”, which moves from inhospitality to total nihilism, reaching a command to “Stand them in the street with a gun and then kill them all”. Other direct references to death appear in “Drop Dead” and the self-destructing “Too Much, Too Much”. The only lasting reprieve from the dark subject matter is “The Overachievers”, a funnily sarcastic take on certain cultural signifiers: smoking dope, driving a bio-car, saving the earth, dropping out and walking in the forest.
A listener might reach the end of Sisterworld and wonder what, exactly, was the point of visiting this imaginary space. Although it is excellently performed, recorded and mixed, this is definitely not an album that could be recommended for its escapist value. Nor could it be described as entertaining. However, in the place of diversionary qualities and emotional uplift, Sisterworld provides a forceful (if not wholly original) perspective on the nightmarish effects of the dream factory. The album purposefully denies indulging the fantasies that pollute entertainment culture. This theme resonates in final track “Too Much, Too Much”, which recalls a quotation from late movie producer Don Simpson, the quintessential Hollywood flameout. Simpson once told writer Charles Fleming, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing… It’s not enough until it’s too much. Because how do you know it’s enough until it’s too much? That’s the only way to find out.” Sisterworld is the sound of breaching that unknowable barrier and realizing that there is no fun to be had, after all.