t the three-minute mark of “Plaster Casts of Everything,” the Liars are My Chemical Romance. Or, if you’d rather, they’re Sonic Youth, Richard Hell, Television. Liars don’t suddenly sound so much like these bands: rather, they “are My Chemical Romance” in the same way your little brother is My Chemical Romance, in his bedroom with his guitar and tablature, pretending large masses of people enjoy his music. For at least one minute during “Plaster Casts,” Liars sculpt very traditional, linear rock music.
This is significant, because since Liars broke in 2001 they have rarely been anyone other than themselves (besides, goofily, Einstürzende Neubauten). If pre-release webspeak is to be believed, this change will not go unnoticed: a mess of “Actual songz!!!” blather has risen like a blazing, irritating phoenix, depressingly aided by quotes from Angus Andrews himself. Liars’ We No Longer Knew Who We Were was reminiscent of Joy Division’s Warsaw EP—a forward-thinking band in its punk genesis—but it now suggests that an alternate title for Liars might have been We Remembered Who We Were.
Drum’s Not Dead connected Liars to folk traditions that almost certainly never existed—I thumbed fife and drum bands while Jeff Siegel went back farther still, both massive reaches—but nonetheless staked the band’s art to something tangible. Liars doesn’t receive the same benefit of the doubt, though a tedious list of touchstones link it to an unassailable critical tradition. Derek Miller noted that moments “sound like Jesus and Mary Chain on the other side of the fire pit”; Liars is ripe with similarly appealing parallels.
The album swivels on four songs, beginning with “Cycle Time,” during which Liars continually jump ship, narrowly missing blues riffs and pop production. Andrews answers previous criticisms of perverse lyricism with stoopidity. “Freak Out” is a thorough goof, caramelized in fuzz. He and his boys roughhouse with gods on “Clear Island”: “Hey hey hey / Dirty clouds got rough / And they’re banging back and forth throwing lightning at us.” The guitars go like this—"dun dun dun dun dun dun"—but, importantly, they go, rather than put their back to a wall and gnash their teeth. The drums sound like war veterans, grim, tired, and quiet. Like a great hardcore screamer, Andrews will never receive proper credit for his craft but he navigates a narrow range—whinny, grunt, hover—better than most obtuse frontmen. If he enacts a discernible change, it’s his willingness to reveal the contours of his voice: a towering, intense crooner.
Still, Liars is the band’s first album to crumble. It is huge and minimal, impatient and sage. “Protection” grasps for…precious? “Versatile” is in the back of my throat. These are things to say about albums and the bands who make them, and up until now Liars weren’t a band, and they didn’t make albums; they were a fucking force, and their instruments were tools for summoning. Liars, ironically, is no longer Liars.
I am being unfair, because little on Liars suggests they have lost their edge. And if Liars have reached the post-masterpiece phase of their career where they hone their craft to a needle’s point, Liars is an absolutely brilliant jump-off. That is a heartbreaking concession, grousing or no. Andrews still sounds the part, but I wonder. On “Sailing to Byzantium” he sings “It’s time to wake these dumb fucks up” and when I’m impatient I answer, “Yes, please.”