Music

Liars: They Were Wrong, So We Drowned

Devon Powers

Liars

They Were Wrong, So We Drowned

Label: Mute
US Release Date: 2004-02-24
UK Release Date: 2004-02-23
Amazon
iTunes

The myth of the Ugly Duckling is prevalent in our culture; equally important, though with less prominence, is that of the Deteriorating Swan. Let me explain. Someplace in your past, whether in your remembrances of high school or as-told-by some teen movie, there once was a girl (yes, usually a girl -- gender can still be so cruel) who was pretty. Miss Pretty fit right in, enjoyed the fruits that our society bequeaths the beautiful, seemed to blossom into a flower easily and overnight, without the weeds, mites, and shit fertilizer that plagued the rest of the teenage saplings. Then, one day -- maybe after a summer of personal discovery, maybe courtesy of a vacation to the Big City, or maybe randomly, for no apparent reason -- Miss Pretty came to school, having bucked her traditional good looks. She punked herself out, dyed and patched and pierced things, had other seemingly vital parts removed. She started dressing schumpily and stopped showering, gained some weight and couldn't give a shit who cared. And her complete disregard for the social ostracism just made everybody whisper more. Her mother, if exhibitionist, perhaps took her on Montel, to have makeover specialists and child psychologists save her daughter; if private, she cried solemnly to herself behind a closed door only after the kids and her husband were asleep, she stopped taking her daughter to the mall, she cluttered the living room with photographs from the pretty old days, as if they were some kind of After picture which could again emerge after a brief transgression into Before territory. The kids at school couldn't figure it out, either: jocks stopped asking her out, but the goth/stoner/math geek/reject dudes didn't jump at the chance -- they too were hard pressed to interpret what would cause one of the chosen ones to slum amongst them. Semi-popular girls across campus thanked their lucky stars, overjoyed that evenings at home filled with venomous prayers and amateur voodoo had finally paid off. And unpretty, unpopoular girls -- suddenly among the Deteriorating Swan's kin -- were moved to reach out, but were also apprehensive that something was amiss, some ulterior motive lurked below the snarled hair, the pudge, the budding acne. Sociological experiment or earnest coming of age, "just a phase" or a new way of life? The jury was out. It still is.

Let's hope you've figured out, this many lines into this review, that Liars are that Miss Pretty, and They Were Wrong, So We Drowned is that foray into that tricky, forbidden territory of what seems like a willed ugliness. No, ugly is too strong a word: what is better is to say that kicked their old sound to the curb and have sallied headlong into experimental new terrain. Whether this is a progressive move forward or a painful step toward god knows what is certainly an important question. But what's even more important to ask -- what the hell made them go this way? And if we, as listeners, miss the point, are we caring fans staging a loving intervention, or no better than the judgmental legions who wouldn't let go of their stereotypes of decency and worth?

It's a tough question -- not made any easier by the fact that Liars had the (mis)fortune of releasing in 2001 what was, for all intents and purposes, a perfect debut. They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top forecast the glory of the musical moment that would embrace New York City, and wider indie rock circles, more expertly than anything else that came out that year; it remains the sort of album you'll play for your kids in 20 years. To top it off, the band's explosive live show made them instantly infamous and earned them a cultish following; lead singer's Angus Andrew's relationship with Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had the same intrigue in Brooklyn that Bennifer used to get in Tinseltown. Despite all this, however, Liars never seemed to acquire the backlash that so many of their peer bands experienced. Liars were truly indie darlings.

No longer, mostly because They Were Wrong is a very difficult listen, one that seems almost determined to repel you before it compels you. The album's opener "Broken Witch", is the most obvious case in point. It begins with sporadic beeps and apoplectic drumming, like a monitor on a patient with an irregular heartbeat and limbs occasionally twitching with life. Then, in a fit, the noises gel into a frenzied sprint, overlain with Andrew's signature vocal-spit, chanting "I am the boy/ she, she is the girl/ he, he is the bear/ we, we, we..." The music falls apart again. It recomposes after a pause, a guitar plucking down a chromatic in unison with the chant, decomposing under the weight of the words until all that's left is the mantra "blood, blood, blood." This keeps happening -- this manic resurrection and slow death, over and over again, each time the extremes more definitively reached. The song ends as if the doc finally got up the courage to pull the plug.

Sure, they lost their old rhythm section, but they also lost their jiveass-sucker-ness, their detonating dancefloor antics, their ability to lead listeners through a complex maze, booties shakin' and synapses firin' all the way. The idiosyncratic intellectualism, the schrapnels of noise, and the outlandish creative liberties are still there, but without the funk these elements are uncomfortably exposed, like a naked body standing shivering in the cold. Do you pity what's gone, admire the courage it takes to strip bare, or simply shudder, too? This album invokes all three reactions.

But it's also enough at times to make you just plain angry, because some songs sound lazy ("Read the Book That Wrote Itself"), or purposely unfinished ("If You're a Wizard, Then Why Do You Wear Glasses", "They Took 14 For The Rest Of Our Lives"), or intentionally hideous (the aforementioned "Broken Witch" or "Hold Hands and It Will Happen Anyway"). And the anger is due because the human inclination is to give them the benefit of the doubt -- to assume effort and love of their art, to imagine that forays into the avant garde require some effort to be understood. This dynamic may be more present in this case, since songs like "There's Always Room on The Broom" or "They Don't Want Your Corn They Want Your Kids" churn with promise. But what if this album is a big joke at our expense?

Ah, this is the conundrum of being a musician. The easiest thing to say in the face of harsh criticism is that you don't care what people have to say about your music. You weren't looking for accolades; you set out to turn people off, and anybody who doesn't get that isn't worth a damn -- this seem to be how the Liars machine is casting the intense reactions to They Were Wrong. All those rationalizations might well be true in this case, but none of them make me want to listen to this album. Music has every right to be difficult, but as listeners, we also have the right to say when we've had enough. We have the right not to be turned on when someone is (intentionally or no) turning us off.

The Deteriorating Swan motif might be calling attention to the most problematic, conservative strands of human nature. But it's also true -- whether we appreciate their newfound unsightliness or not -- that swans usually deteriorate because something happened. And it's hard not to interpret They Were Wrong, So We Drowned -- album title and all -- as a cry for help, like a suicide note from the brink of self-destruction. If Liars are drowning, who is going to save them?

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image