If there’s a constant in Liars’ music, it’s one of perpetual change. True to their name, the trio has carved a charming path of deception, embracing one sound or style temporarily, only to be shed soon thereafter in favor of something completely new and different. From the post-punk dance of They Threw Us in a Trench And Stuck a Monument on Top to the industrial drone of They Were Wrong So We Drowned to the abstract atmospherics of Drum’s Not Dead, each Liars album is entirely different from the one that preceded it. The band has even gone to great geographical lengths as well, plotting a path from Brooklyn to Berlin to their most recent locale, Los Angeles. For many artists, this frequent desire to abandon the familiar and start fresh would prove frustrating, and at the very least confusing, but with Liars, it’s an approach that continually yields amazing results, achieving a new and quite unexpected zenith on their fourth, self-titled album.
The defining factor that makes Liars such an impressive release is, as expected, entirely the opposite of what made Drum’s Not Dead a powerful artistic statement. There are no underlying themes or concepts. There are no characters. There are no minimalist drones or noise tracks. Rather, Liars have constructed a rock album, the sort that hardly anyone could have expected to this point, including the band who were, according to frontman Angus Andrew, “a bit shocked” that this was their end result. And though a rock album in itself isn’t a revelation, in the hands of Andrew, Aaron Hemphill and Julian Gross, three chords somehow become an entirely novel concept. Hearing the opening barrage of tom-tom pounds and churning guitar of “Plaster Casts of Everything” is like being completely re-introduced to rock music. It’s intense and powerful, simple yet layered with melodic textures. As Andrew howls the repeated mantra “I wanna run away” he seems to echo the band’s own M.O. of restlessness, though it takes a turn for the friendly/romantic with the follow-up statement, “I wanna bring you too.”
One track later, Liars attempt a sort of melodic trip-hop, somewhere between Radiohead and a more fun Massive Attack, on the upbeat “Houseclouds,” and adapt this beat-heavy approach to moodier effect on the outstanding “Sailing to Byzantium.” Curiously, these two melody-heavy tracks sandwich “Leather Prowler,” a noise-ridden track that offers the only glimpse of the band’s past. While it’s comforting to hear a bit of the chaos that has since come to be a trademark, it’s the evolution of their harsh, distorted sound world into a skewed pop sensibility that makes Liars the bold statement that it is. “What Would They Know” may bear the standard Liars traits—enormous, booming drums, reverb-heavy guitars, hypnotic vocals—yet they’re pieced together entirely differently. What could once have been a meditative, near ambient track becomes, instead, a woozy, densely layered rock song, and a really fucking good one at that.
Nowhere does the dichotomy between the band’s affinity for freewheeling experimentation and newfound adherence to structure become as apparent as it is on “Cycle Time,” which goes from rhythmic, jagged brutality to stately and (almost) precise in the course of two minutes. Most striking of all is the Jesus & Mary Chain noise-pop of “Freak Out,” a song catchier than any of their past singles, while displaying an ease and assuredness in Andrew’s refrain, “there’s nothing to freak out about, all right.” For purely badass rock stomp, “Clear Island” provides a mighty surge of adrenaline with its simple, yet burly guitar progression and beastly yet basic drums. By the time Andrew begins his repetition of “Come save me, my heart,” there’s bound to be a few casualties of wild, directionless jumping around and arm flailing. The best rock songs can persuade anyone to look like an idiot; consider this one a classic.
The tense abstraction of “The Dumb in the Rain” is one of few songs with a less immediate emphasis on melody, though it sure sounds cool. Closer “Protection” is the greatest surprise, a tender and melancholy reflection with an emotional resonance that only “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack” rivals. It’s a beautiful song, devastating one moment (“I let you down“) and dreamy the next (“When you close your eyes/ I don’t need protection“).
It’s really tempting to call Liars’ self-titled effort their best. Some would argue that it’s too soon to tell, which is almost always certainly the case for such brash declarations. But with Liars’ ongoing stylistic evolution comes a continuous approach toward perfection, and here, they’re close enough to call it a `gimmie.’
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.