On the fifth track of their seventh album, Liars program a synthesizer to mimic the rhythm of an acoustic guitar being strummed. Electricity roils beneath Angus Andrew’s filtered voice. There’s no percussion. It is the quietest moment on Mess, and also the loveliest, with roots in “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack”, the closer to 2006’s Drums Not Dead, which was gentle enough to soundtrack multiple feature films. But I keep waiting for the twin textures on “Can’t Hear Well” to burst open, to bloom, to prove that their simplicity has all been a trick. They don’t. The song drags along for three and a half minutes, and then Mess moves onto its next cluster of synths, and beats, and barks.
After WIXIW, an album that was all about the bloom, Mess stagnates in stubborn contrast. It’s still very much a synthesizer record, a piece that delights in the varied hues that old machines breathe. Liars aren’t about to hit the guitars again anytime soon. Immersed in a world of pixels and whirrs, the art rock trio now build up their songs like Lego castles from mismatched bricks. A large proportion of Liars songs have been written in 4/4 time, but Mess might be the most 4/4 of their records to date: solid, steady, and square.
Each track either rages or slogs. Besides “Can’t Hear Well”, there’s no exception. “Mess on a Mission” spins on an agitated axis like a neutered “Brats”; Andrew even digs into the same falsetto yelps as he did on WIXIW‘s manic climax. “Pro Anti Anti” blasts off into a military death march, fake organs chirping and real synths churning as Andrew sings in chorus with himself like some Soviet clone army from space. The stakes are high, but also obvious; it’s the first Liars track I’m tempted to call political, along the lines of Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief. The lyrics are masked in metaphor, but “the crook who turns the key” sounds very much like it could be someone we see regularly on television.
Liars also use spoken-word samples for what may be the first time in their decade-plus career. Opening track “Mask Maker” spotlights a character who sounds like a hybrid between Buffalo Bill and Optimus Prime. He shouts violent, sexual commands and coughs grotesquely while Andrew slices his own voice with a digital stutter. The song pulls its unease taut, but manages little propulsion. The bass doesn’t power the whole machine the way it does on WIXIW‘s transcendent “No. 1 Against the Rush”. It lurks under the surface, buzzing and buzzing all by itself. The beats land big and heavy, not pushing the music forward so much as carving it up into chunks.
The record’s second side, which begins after the eruption of “Mess on a Mission”, slinks along through dense murk. “Darkslide” is a fairly inconsequential heap of insectile textures, a pure instrumental that leads into the slow and groaning “Boyzone”. Later, “Perpetual Village” stretches an unforgivable nine minutes. The way it slithers holds some grip, but its melodies trace well-worn Liars arcs; Andrew swoops from the bottom to the top of his range and then back, over and over. The song exhausts the patience that King of Limbs required without baring anything so delicate and mournful as, say, “Give Up the Ghost”. I can only indulge mood and texture alone for so long. Also lengthy, “Left Speaker Blown” bookends the record by hitting Liars’ sad spots almost as deftly as the devastating “Drum Gets a Glimpse”. The bass pulses, guitars cascade, and Andrew sings inside what feels like immense, lonely space. Something like a pronunciation guide plays, a calming counterpoint to Buffalo Prime’s demands.
I find it hard to listen to Mess and not miss the rampant motion of Sisterworld, the clever melodies of WIXIW, or the way Drums Not Dead draws hot air tight around itself for what can feel like hours. Mess gets caught in an odd trap in that it’s neither patient nor nimble. There’s a way to run on four beats per bar without printing identical shapes for the duration of a song, and Liars usually find it — the jarring dynamics on “Scissor” make the best example. On Mess, they find a lull instead. Coming from one of art rock’s most consistent outfits, it’s a forgivable lapse.
Essential Tracks: “Can’t Hear Well”