Release Date: March 25, 2014
Liars don’t simply write songs. They create musical translations of our collective existential crises. This means their music is going to be messy. It’s going to be gritty and dissonant, dark and disorienting, agitated and absurd. It’s why their seventh full-length is simply titled Mess – it’s organized chaos at its most entrancing. And it pretty much encapsulates the band’s evolution — from scrappy startups in Brooklyn’s turn-of-the-century dance-punk scene to witchcraft storytellers bashing nebulous sounds together to ambient-electro perfectionists. With Mess, they play all these roles, adding up as enigmatic electronic composers with punk sensibilities, Frankensteins transforming hardware into wetware.
The most impressive part is that Liars have only been tinkering with electronic music for roughly 20 percent of their career now, doing a sharp left turn from the gothic Nick Cave haze of 2010’s Sisterworld to the more calculated Kid A-meets-Krautrock precision of 2012’s WIXIW. But where that latter album opened with the tentatively titled “The Exact Colour of Doubt,” Mess is palpably more bold and brazen right out of the gate: “Take my pants off… Smell my socks… Eat my face off,” groans vocalist Angus Andrew on “Mask Maker,” sounding like Cookie Monster on bath salts, as throbbing and stuttering beats pile on top of each other and ominous drones slither through like snakes navigating their way around a pile of jagged rocks. Its dizzying layers of beats will make your ass shake as fervently as your head will want to bang, and it sets the tone for an album just ripe for a rave in purgatory (or maybe right here, right now — however dismal you see our current state of affairs).
And they pummel you like this for the first 20 minutes or so. “Vox Tuned D.E.D.” pulsates even more ferociously, driven by dissonant minor chords bent and twisted in every conceivable direction, underlined by thundering sub-bass. “I’m No Gold” swipes a few tinny tones from Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” and the sixteenth-note kick drum from New Order’s “Blue Monday,” before more maddening, stuttering beats loop around and plow them down, and then an organ moan pipes in and Andrew’s bassy grumble climbs to a balloon-sucking falsetto. “Pro Anti Anti” turns that organ inside out in a fiery cacophony of fuzzy, jarring tones and marching beats. Its lyrics, though often hard to discern in the mumbles, start to get to the core of what Mess is all about — trying to find some sort of peace in this anxiety-breeding world: “Pain, stress and sorrow, from the world that blurs the me from me… I brood in ecstasy, a thought to wrap my head around,” he sings.
And with that, a breath is finally drawn (sort of). Though next track “Can’t Hear Well” burns much more slowly, it’s guided by oscillating notes of seasick proportions, keeping tensions high as Andrew’s warble seemingly echoes from a megaphone like a wearied demigod: “Don’t knock on the way they go to war/ You’ll never play the fantasy again.”
And then it’s back to the pummeling. Single “Mess on a Mission” builds swiftly into a chorus that frantically wails the title. From there they continue sculpting their thick and icy electro-symphonic palette, recalling likeminded wizards The Knife, Richard D. James as Polygon Window, and various darkwave dwellers. Instrumental “Darkslide” and “Boyzone” travel everywhere but straight ahead; blips and bleeps plop along as if they’re bloated with water and unruly notes grate and slide, skitter and wriggle. “Is there no better place to die?” asks Andrew on “Boyzone,” and you can’t help wonder if he’s being ironic or not. From there “Dress Walker” is the album’s grooviest track, but that funkiness proves fleeting, as “Perpetual Village” soon takes you through a discordant nine-minute journey that moves like a subway rolling through a swamp — screechy and mucky and demanding of patience — as grimy beats try to squeeze their way to the top of the mix. But it’s not until the closing track, “Left Speaker Blown,” that Liars offer the album’s most melancholic and mesmerizing moment, and maybe its most liberating proclamation: “I gave up captured without force, freely.”
It’s a closing statement that can be interpreted as either giving up or willingly letting go. However you see it, everything’s a mess. Embrace it. Turn on. Tune in. Take your pants off.