Liars might be one of the most under-appreciated bands in indie rock. That’s not to say the band doesn’t get plenty of good reviews or attention from key indie media outlets, but for a band that has been as consistently good as the Liars have been for over ten years it is a little bit surprising that they have never managed to break through to a higher tier of success, a la Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, or Bon Iver. Granted, only one of those artists’ trajectories comes close to resembling Liars’, and even then, Animal Collective didn’t reach that next level until they released their most polished and accessible collection of songs to date. While Liars have always presented their work as polished, I’m not sure much of that work, outside of their 2002 dance-punk debut album They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, could ever be described as accessible. Even on that debut album, Liars were testing their audience’s patience with sonic discord and locked grooves.
Listening to that debut album, now, it’s hard to believe the same band went on to make albums as challenging and exciting as 2004’s reviled-at-the-time, but now celebrated, concept album about witches, They Were Wrong so We Drowned, or their gorgeous high water mark, the 2006 song-cycle, Drum’s Not Dead. That being said, it’s not quite so hard to draw a straight line between They Threw Us All in a Trench…, and Liars latest, the slickly electronic but utterly tense Wixiw (pronounced “Wish You”).
In terms of Liars’ discography, Wixiw sits in a precarious place. The album arrives after two albums, Liars and Sisterworld, that feel fairly straightforward, like Liars albums. To some extent, Wixiw feels like an extension of these last two albums in that it continues to feel, essentially, like a Liars album. The songs are heavy and brooding, propelled by tricky beats, tense arrangements, and Angus Andrew’s impeccably punk-damaged voice. These traits are best embodied in tracks like “Octagon,” and “Flood to Flood,” songs that are claustrophobic and unsettling, evoking a desperate and disturbing but quiet misanthropy that underlies the songs.
At the same time, “Octagon” and “Flood to Flood,” are also fine examples of how Wixiw finds Liars experimenting with their sound and arriving at something new and exciting; the album’s electronic production, while smooth on the surface, feels almost rudimentary compared to work produced and consumed by more serious-minded electronic aesthetes—this disparity between reach and grasp provides Wixiw with a sense of feeling raw, punk even. In terms of typical genre signifiers, Wixiw isn’t at all a punk album, but in terms of how it butts heads with and pushes at electronic production, it might be Liars most punk move since they alienated a whole boatload of fans in the transition from the punkish, rhythmic Trench to the formless, atmospheric They Were Wrong so We Drowned.
Listeners won’t hear punk in the gorgeously chill, almost-pop of “No. 1 Against the Rush,” the dimly lit corridors of the album’s haunted and desperate title track, nor in the anxious burbling and restrained guitars of “His and Mine Sensation.” What listeners will hear in these songs is a raw, emotional edge focused into tightly spun, coolly detached compositions in which said detachment doesn’t alienate listener but heightens the sense of urgency with which these songs grapple with the idea of alienation. When Andrew sings terse lines like “Tie me down when I’m in seizure/Keep me home away from people,” and “I refuse to be a person,” as he does on “Flood to Flood,” the raw energy underlying Wixiw’s electronic trappings comes to the fore, and the results are utterly devastating.
As with past Liars albums, I have no illusions that Wixiw will propel the band to the upper echelons of indie notoriety. While that’s a bit disappointing, it is a fact of life for artists who make music as consistently difficult as Liars’. Ultimately, Wixiw is an exciting and urgent album that finds Liars hanging onto the essential elements of their sound, even as the band reinvents itself in a way that is fresh and engaging. Wixiw isn’t the type of experiment that will change how people think about music, nor will it challenge a mass audience the way an album like Kid A managed more than a decade ago. That’s fine. I don’t suspect Liars have set out to revolutionize anything but their own sound, and on Wixiw they have done an excellent job of doing just that.