Liars – WIXIW
After such dramatic musical shifts between albums nothing that Liars could do now would really be surprising, but if WIXIW isn’t their best album since 2006’s Drum’s Not Dead it’s at least their most cohesive. Their sixth full-length (pronounced “wish you”) moves away from the dry guitars of previous record Sisterworld and predominantly builds its world on electronic sounds and textures.
Despite the constant renovations and reinventions something that has remained constant across Liars albums since They Were Wrong, So We Drowned is their tendency to lean on tension rather than release. An unseen presence lurks around every corner and a pervasive menace blackens the atmosphere. This was particularly true of Sisterworld, which only buckled under the tension and exploded with ‘Scissor’, ‘Scarecrows on a Killer Slant’ and ‘The Overachievers’, all of which balanced their catharsis with taut rhythms and strained guitar tones.
WIXIW isn’t always as tightly wound in its atmosphere, but even the softer moments come bundled with the uncanny. ‘The Exact Colour of Doubt’ opens the record with warm subdued electronic textures and vocalist Angus Andrew’s lyrics both comforting (“I’ll always be your friend”) and foreboding (“I wonder where you go”). ‘Octagon’ on the other hand visualises something horrible lurching down a corridor or alleyway, like the precursor to a dreadful cataclysm. While busy hi-hats suggest movement the synth strings take the role of a harbinger, a reminder of why it might be time to run. Something wicked this way comes. Melancholy post-punk synths and an unflinching krautrock beat push single ‘No. 1 Against the Rush’ warmly to some resigned inevitability (the music video offers a thought or two on what that inevitability could be).
Placed appropriately in the middle of the album, the palindromic title track is built on Drum’s Not Dead-style rumbling percussion and an uneasy, improvised synth that’s dragged spiralling into a discordant, hypnotic loop. The clearly human performance of the instrument combined with the forced electronic manipulation brings freedom and control to the forefront. In an inspired lead vocal turn Aaron Hemphill sings in a soft tenor, yearning for someone’s presence and of an empty existence. His performance is among the sweetest and least theatrical on the album, but it’s produced with a certain cold sheen that makes it appear present though otherworldly and suspended above the musical chaos.
An eerie vocal melody and single string guitar riff, reminiscent Joy Division’s ‘She’s Lost Control’, open every other bar of ‘Flood to Flood’ before being bludgeoned by a pounding, primal, distorted synth in the following. Vocals and bass take the lead in ‘Who Is the Hunter’ before a techno beat kicks in and layers of rhythmic electronics gradually build beneath. It’s one of the clearest examples of Liars mastery of arrangement.
WIXIW is rarely short of interesting moments and borderline catchy additions that nevertheless err on the side of weird. It couldn’t be called accessible but there are ways in. Penultimate track ‘Brats’ is the biggest departure and biggest freakout on the album with its aggressive dance groove and distorted electronics, while Andrew lets loose with the falsetto as it draws to its climax. It sounds a bit like what the Rapture might release if they found Satan as opposed to God, and harks back to Liars first album perhaps more than anything they’ve released since.
Most of the tracks on WIXIW have a greater sense of purpose than Sisterworld thus the album flows better. Though it lacks the dynamic peaks and troughs of its predecessor it doesn’t fall into the trap of putting too many purely tense, atmospheric moments together. It recognises that it’s difficult to balance on a knife-edge for too long and not get impaled.
It’s not a stretch to say that Liars are in a comparable position, musically if not commercially, to Radiohead a decade ago. Engulfed in the aura they can turn their hand to anything, make it work and still keep central elements of their style, Liars have become the most reliable experimental post-punk band on the block. There are so many brilliant moments on WIXIW in calculated subtlety and in flashes of brutality, and the band’s tendency to emphasise atmosphere, mood, tension and experimentation never detracts focus from the songs themselves.
Since Drum’s Not Dead didn’t come about under the same circumstances as career peaks like Turn on the Bright Lights or Is This It referring back to it so often almost seems fatuous, but that’s what you get when you release an arguably perfect record. The thing that made it great was its cohesive and well-executed concept and the way that enhanced the music itself. It was an album that lived or died by its mood and atmosphere, but still featured some brilliant individual tracks. It was an album that spoke of the soaring creativity and pig-headedness of Liars. It was an album that made you listen to what it is, not what it isn’t. Now, with all that in mind I’m going to end on a statement: WIXIW is probably the best album Liars have released since Drum’s Not Dead.