When we last left the members of Liars, they were floating in a lovely haze, whispering promises that they’d never run far. Now, only a year later, they open their eponymous fourth album with the nuclear guitar riffs of lead single “Plaster Casts of Everything,” with Angus Andrew screaming in a possessed falsetto about his desire to run away after all, though hoping to “bring you, too.” This new mantra is a nice statement of artistic purpose: fleeing from stasis but inviting fellow travelers along. After ditching the instantly dated dance-punk movement and being dragged over the critical coals for their Wiccan wanderlust, the boys took a creative stand and were completely validated by their uncompromised opus, last year’s Drum’s Not Dead. Following that pristine and minimal album with the wild hard rock of “Plaster Casts” is a characteristically bold, exciting turn. As opposed to previous releases, though, the set tone only lasts for that solitary song. Instead of finding a comprehensive new mode in which to work, their entire methodology has changed on Liars. The album restlessly skips from style to style, making it the most eclectic of the band’s career so far though not quite the accessible crossover early press had suggested.
Sure, the album has moments that are clearly more conventional than the tribal rhythms of Drum’s Not Dead or its reviled predecessor, 2004’s They Were Wrong So We Drowned. You don’t have to go further than the party-time synths and Beck-ish beats of “Houseclouds” to realize that. But it’s also apparent that the flow of the album is hurt by its scattered nature. “Leather Prowler,” the noisy dirge that follows, would have fit easily into They Were Wrong, but its tuneless textures feel out of place here and make even less sense moving into the spooked trip-hop of “Sailing to Byzantium.” This problem is repeated several times throughout, with messy mood pieces like “What Would They Know” and “Dumb in the Rain” left stranded. Without a prevailing theme and not graced with the judicious empty spaces of Drum’s Not Dead‘s immaculate production, these tracks just don’t work.
But the stylistic buffet has enough strength to survive a handful of duds. The aforementioned “Sailing to Byzantium” grounds its stately beat and hovering piano rolls with a pleasing vocal line. Depending on your interpretation of the vaguely anti-apathy lyrics, the group could even be backtracking on its early “not too political” slogan. “Freak Out” is easily the band’s most straightforward composition yet, recalling the garage revisionism of the Jesus and Mary Chain but reducing that band’s squealing feedback by a third. “Clear Island” is a stomping punk rave-up that’d be perfect for speeding on an open road. “Pure Unevil” succeeds on a deeper level, molding an oddly tuned guitar din with a sharp bass line and a sing-song melody. Only in comparison to the group’s early work could it be considered normal, but there’s a pop sensibility there that has occasionally eluded the band’s more conceptual work.
The album closes with “Protection,” a nostalgic song about teenage summers misspent. Although this is the second straight Liars record to end on a pretty note, this song is far from the idealized sweetness of “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack.” “I let you down,” sings Andrew, before updating us with “Lately I’m fucked up.” Amid the dark confessions, there is a realization. The band has never let us in this far before, never given us a moment this human. Lyrically, it’s been all fever-dream surrealism: witches, half-horse men, drums versus heart attacks, and misters on fire. In context, hearing about a youth spent learning to drink and “going out for lifeguards” seems startlingly intimate. If the band can marry this sort of personal feeling with the cohesive brilliance it’s previously displayed, something approaching a universal album is well within its grasp. But it’s obvious that my wishes or yours won’t be factored into the band’s next move. Any speculation on where they go from here is an exercise in futility. We can only hope they’ll still want to bring us, too.