Like all of their records, Liars’ sixth, WIXIW, is a departure from the one that came before it. And while Angus Andrew, Aaron Hemphill, and Julian Gross have gone way, way out in the past–did anyone see the tribal nightmare of Drum’s Not Dead coming in the aftermath of They Were Wrong, So We Drowned?–with WIXIW, the group have made their most surprising record yet, simply by staying close to home. With the possible exception of debut They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, which was released at the height of NYC’s early-decade dance-punk renaissance, WIXIW is certainly their most accessible. Andrew, Hemphill, and Gross have packed away the bassoons and strings that gave 2010’s Sisterworld its orchestral flourish, stripping their aesthetic down all the way beyond the skin, until its gyrating electronic essence is all that’s left. In some ways, it functions as proof that the dancefloor wisdom they espoused on They Threw Us All in a Trench wasn’t some kind of pose: The airy webs that float over “A Ring on Every Finger” rely on patches of click-clomp groove and fresh squeezes of synth bass. It’s hard to avoid calling what it does “boogeying.”
Liars don’t have a “sound,” in the general sense; their catalog is far too varied and risky to fit comfortably under a single banner. What they have instead is a kind of spirit that animates whatever body they happen to have picked up at the moment–a personality, we might say, capable of jumping around, recognizable in essence if not in appearance. Liars do have sonic hallmarks, sure, and despite the juggled instrumentation, they do appear throughout WIXIW: drums that roll like mallets on a keg, Andrew’s pinched and creeping falsetto. But below the music itself, maybe informing it, is a deep weariness that flows throughout their discography. It’s this weariness that keeps WIXIW from being just another electronic record, whether it manifests itself as fatigue (opener “The Exact Colour of Doubt”), or paranoia (“Octagon”), or outright menace (the howling middle section of the title track). Danger, and entropy, and decay are always at the aesthetic center of what this band does, right down to the way the hard stabs of synth in the chorus of single “No. 1 Against the Rush” begin to melt like crayon wax as they roll against the song’s rhythm. We may not have another band more acutely aware of evil than Liars–the ding of diamond-scratched glass in the bedroom-intruder song “It Fit When I Was a Kid,” from Drum’s Not Dead, still gives me chills.
But there’s also something exquisitely goofy about Liars that pushes back against with the horror. The title of “No. 1 Against the Rush,” which Andrew sings like a bummed-out Danzig, turns out to be a reference to last year’s San Francisco 49ers team, and that album cover could either be an ASCII art mock-up of the Blair Witch totem or one of the Niners’ diagrammed plays; with all of the implied gore and fear and good humor in both, neither would be surprising. The title is pronounced “wish you,” and it’s meant to suggest a longing and a desire for change, but it’s also a palindrome, a playful poetic device on roughly the same level as the onomatopoeia; WIXIW is nearly that, too.
And so there’s a strange humanity lurking among the album’s deeply digital soundscapes. I missed this when it was released back in June. On first listen, WIXIW seemed cold, and inhuman in a way that Liars’ work had never been. Even at their most terrifying (Sisterworld’s “Scarecrows on a Killer Slant,” say, or “It Fit When I Was a Kid”), the group themselves always seemed to have power over the music, but their presence seemed like it had been digitally wiped from the album’s circuitry. But the more I’ve listened to it, the more I’ve let myself sit and hear it and stopped staring at and thinking about the horror and instead gotten up from my desk and shuffled around and moved my hips and giggled at the lurking evil and basically let dance music be dance music for other parts of my body besides the brain–the more I’ve seen that the ghost in the machine is deeply invested in boogeying down. words/ m garner