While most artists lend lip-service to the notion of reinvention, Liars have made it one of the foundational elements of their career. Angus Andrew (vocals, guitar), Aaron Hemphill (percussion, guitar, synth), and Julian Gross (percussion) have spent the last decade challenging their listeners as well as their own musical tendencies. In a recent interview discussing their newest album, WIXIW, Andrew noted that “[they] dropped everything [they] had learned on the last couple albums and tried to really see what it’s like starting from the other end.” This is an admirable yet precarious approach. It’s akin to Steinbeck burning the entire first draft of The Grapes of Wrath. I am sure that at the time friends and family said “John, what the hell are you doing?” And then they read the final version and thought “ah, of course.” In a similar way, WIXIW will silence the non-believers.
For this album, Liars holed up in a studio under the 101 freeway in L.A. and learned how to produce electronic music. The space has no windows and is situated in a forgotten area of the city, where the glitz of L.A turns to grime and decay. This environment shaped the contours of WIXIW. It is an album about sequestering yourself and digging deep inside your own head. Beginning with opening track “The Exact Color of Doubt” it’s clear that, sonically speaking, this theme translates into an expansive yet intensely intimate sound. Sweeping, dreamlike synths circle around sparse percussion and Andrews’ voice (something like an unpolished Thom Yorke) meanders aimlessly. It’s a song fit to be played during a nighttime scuba diving excursion. In fact, most of the record feels deeply associated with water. Specifically, being alone and deep, surrounded on all sides by pressure and the unknown, looking up at one guiding light on the surface.
Liars are constantly striving to incorporate unique yet fascinating sounds into their arrangements. For this record, they “wetted rags and let them drip on tin pots. [They] filled up balloons and let them out slowly.” Within the final product, however, its difficult to parse the samples from the digital production. Both work simultaneously to create tracks that reveal themselves to be more and more complicated with every listen. “Octagon”, “A Ring on Every Finger”, and “His and Mine Sensations” all draw on strands of UK Bass music – the echoey metallic synths, the stuttering snare hits, the bouncy bass lines – but they are also strikingly original. This is the case throughout, as one’s expectations for what the next song will sound like are consistently subverted.
The album has hauntingly catchy moments, most notably on the stunning single “No. 1 Against the Rush”, but it is, first and foremost, a dark experimentation in electronic rock music. The eponymous track is a twisted saga rife with stilted rhythms and dissonant melodies. It has the immediacy of some of No Age’s best work and in recognition of this Andrew sings with a rebellious angst. NPR’s comment that this the “best Radiohead album since Kid A” is a little suspect, but it does seem accurate when listening to tunes like “Flood to Flood.” The sonic complexity, vocal techniques, and percussion arrangements all smack of Radiohead, but there is a caginess to the song that makes it stand on its own – a kind of manic claustrophobia that is decidedly a Liars creation. “Flood to Flood”’s intense momentum is slowed on “Who is the Hunter”, a gorgeous, airy track that finds Andrew bringing back his lilting falsetto, only to be brought back again on the dance-punk jam “Brats.” As dark synth lines and fuzzy guitar were part of the world that Liars were born in over a decade ago, it is appropriate that they make a triumphant comeback on WIXIW.
This may be Liars most accessible album but that does not entail that it is any less confounding than the rest of their work. Andrews recently argued that “interesting art allows you an obvious entry point, but it doesn’t necessarily give you an easy exit.” In that spirit, WIXIW creates an uneasy space, like an underground bunker built to be used only in times of extreme tragedy. It has plenty of beautiful moments and more catchiness than a typical Liars affair but, most importantly, it feels like an intimate viewing of the minds of its creators. The group ostracized itself in a bleak studio with freeway noise, heat, and anxiety constantly pressing in against them. It was an experiential catalyst, and it led to the group’s most focused and captivating album yet. Here’s hoping that they write their next record in an even smaller studio right in the middle of a war zone.