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?