Liars are, in essence, a rock band. A facile statement, perhaps, but it’s a point easily lost for a band that regularly pushes against what rock sounds like, how it’s supposed to make you feel, and how many understood rules of listenability you can break without losing an audience. But if you dig past the abrasive surfaces and conceptual concerns governing most of their releases, Liars are just three guys bashing away on their instruments (figuratively, of late), writing compositions that are, with a few exceptions, between three and five minutes long, and airing their grievances in an identifiably “rock” way. This has possibly never been clearer than on their latest attempt to evade rock tropes, Mess. And, as it turns out, this failure to not rock isn’t such a bad thing.
Mess is the second album in a row that finds Angus Andrew, Aaron Hemphill, and Julian Gross working in an electronic format, ostensibly to escape the restrictions of traditional songwriting. But we should qualify this — Liars have been unusually beholden to electronics. Even when the band depicted primal inspiration through pounding beats on Drum’s Not Dead, scarcely a tom made it to tape without effect. So when we say that Liars “went electronic” on 2012’s Wixiw, what we really mean is that they input their bad vibes through some poor, abused laptop that’s now probably in need of therapy. What made Wixiw such a departure wasn’t just the new timbres, however, but what the shift to unfamiliar tools brought out in the band’s songwriting. Wixiw is quiet and streamlined, but queasy, as if all of that outward-facing anxiety from their previous albums had been reabsorbed and turned into illness. It’s meditative, but nauseous, like Kid A with a hangover.
If Wixiw is what it sounds like when an experimental-minded band first adopts novel instruments, Mess is what it sounds like after that band has finished reading the manuals and taken their new toys on the road. This is where Liars’ roots as a rock band become important. Now that Andrew, Hemphill, and Gross have had some experience composing electronically, it sounds as if they can’t help but steer their sound back toward familiarity, which means a turn from blips, blips, beeps, and wobbly chords to pulverizing kick-snare grooves and pointed synth stabs. It’s easily the most danceable Liars’ album, but, despite the less-traveled path Liars took to get to this conclusion of rock-like electronic music, Mess often doesn’t sound far removed from ’90s Wax Trax! acts or their Mute labelmates Nitzer Ebb. Maybe this is the result of direct influence or perhaps received cultural ideas about the ideal presets and effects to render frustration through electronics, but the last time Liars sounded so indebted to other acts was when they were copping Jesus and Mary Chain moves on their self-titled 2007 album.
This isn’t to say Mess doesn’t sound like a Liars album. In fact, Mess may be closer to the electronic album you’d expect Liars to make instead of the more subtle, reflective Wixiw. “Pro Anti-Anti” and “Vox Tuned D.E.D.” pummel like Sisterworld‘s “Scarecrows on a Killer Slant” and Liars‘ “Plaster Casts of Everything”, and “Boyzone” and “Perpetual Village” computerize the thump, chant, and drone mode that’s flecked their catalog from Drum’s Not Dead onward. In fact, despite the surface similarity to hard-edged electronic bands of yore, the band effortlessly maintains its sonic identity throughout. There are chord combinations and even beats that mark songs as Liars compositions no matter what they’re played on; few artists get so much movement out of unsyncopated, dynamically unvarying eighth notes.
For that matter, few vocalists can chart out the ambiguous emotional territory Angus Andrew does. A conventional singer couldn’t underscore the balance of doomed seriousness and gallows humor at the heart of the Liars’ work. On lead single, “Mess on a Mission”, he repeatedly insists “facts are facts, and fiction’s fiction”, but throws his own veracity into question with a wavering falsetto reciting the song’s title, like a taunting gremlin tossing debris into the engine of the song. Mischievous creatures are constantly running through the background of Mess, which kicks off with a pitch-lowered voice asking you to “take my pants off” before escalating to sock-smelling and face removal. Amidst the physical and emotional displacement Andrew describes on “Dress Walker” he alludes to “demons at the door”, suggesting you “let the one inside and sing along”. Liars may be cynical, but they’re not maudlin. They want those pesky demons around. What else would there be to write about?
When promoting Wixiw, Liars were less than complimentary toward their then-recent, overtly rock-leaning albums, particularly the sinister, L.A.-eviscerating Sisterworld. They were too dismissive, in my opinion; the tension they created by fitting their tribal rhythms, alien textures, and distinctly un-rock sounds into more standard songwriting formulas made those albums more, not less, distinctive. Bending genre can be more riveting than working outside of genre or, as Liars have done recently, shifting genre. As Liars continue their hiatus from the trappings of rock with Mess, they’ve created what is without a doubt their least innovative and least gloriously messy album. It’s a testament to the sturdy identity underneath the surface that the result is great nonetheless.