In the ten-or-so years since Liars’ inception, the band has weathered a relentless rollercoaster of the best and worst of what the current music-critical tumult has to offer. That they’ve persisted this long at all, burdened with both lofty accolades and bitter backlash, is nothing short of a minor miracle. Retracing the ups and downs of the trio’s career arc is likely old hat by now, but in brief, the band has upended the expectations of their audience on enough occasions that they’ve garnered something of a reputation for independence. That reputation has certainly been hard-earned, but it might be that their interest in making “honest,” externally unobligated music — realized through an unwavering dedication to their own collective vision — is precisely what’s enabled them to bear the sort of weight that might have crushed a less willful outfit. What’s more, they’ve delivered four unusually thoughtful, well-crafted-yet-rough-hewn records during their time together. Now, in March of 2010, Liars have landed this side of the last decade on solid ground, with their fifth album in hand. It’s called Sisterworld and simply put: it’s a gut-lacerating doozy of a recording.
In terms of process, Sisterworld is a sort of return to form for Liars. For their last, eponymous LP, the trio chose to upset the working method with which they’d become comfortable, adopting a drastically accelerated production timeline and attempting to “forego” the unifying conceptual designs they’d developed for their second and third outings. Their intention was to produce an album that emphasized individual songs over LP-length narrative and atmospheric statements, one that could really “connect” and “communicate” with listeners in a more immediate, visceral way. For Sisterworld, however, the band revisits the slower, more thematically definite working process of Drum’s Not Dead and They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. This time around, there’s a clear conceptual and musical cohesion among the record’s eleven tracks — instrumental and timbral touchstones appear and reappear on multiple songs, melodic and lyrical themes can be traced through the record — but it’s also clear that their hand-tying explorations have left a valuable impression as well. Sisterworld is Liars’ most accessible record to date — the production is clear and precise, the songs are often economically structured and just plain catchy — and the band has managed a methodological synthesis, achieving conceptual coherence while also assembling a collection of tracks that could all burn just as brilliantly when removed from the context of the album as a whole.
The album’s foundational idea revolves around an exploration of alienation from what Liar Angus Andrew describes as “America’s love affair with positive thinking” and an interest in the alternative spaces its victims and outcasts make for themselves in order to survive. The concept was inspired by the trio’s collective return to Los Angeles, the city where they first met and perhaps the American urban environment in which the dichotomous mechanics of this relationship are apparent in starkest relief. In a recent interview, Andrew explained that “Most of the feelings in the album are what makes you want to go to a sisterworld […] to find another place for you to be.” His explanation rings true in the listening experience: frustration, self-loathing, boredom, madness, rage, and alienation are skin-crawlingly present here in spades, and like Drum and Drowned before it, Sisterworld often feels like a determined dance with the devil, a sublime sort of ritualistic purging and cleansing through engagement.
The record opens with two very strong feet forward in “Scissor” and “No Barrier Fun.” The first is the album’s lead single and a veritable masterclass in a deft negotiation between tension and release that’s always been central to Liars’ compositional method. The track features a gauzy, serpentine river of breathtaking, mournful vocal interplay — not to mention Hollywood-soundtrack-style strings and woodwinds — punctuated by two perfectly-timed marching band blasts of punishing guitar and drums. It’s an excellently unforgiving introduction to the sonic language of the album and a stunning strike that hits so hard you’re barely able to sort out just what’s happened before the pudding-thick, venomous groove of “No Barrier Fun” starts working its skittering, funky way through your veins. This second track is chilling, yet absolutely arid — a wobbling, bone-dry skeleton adorned with Andrew’s fleshy, lethargic incantations: “I wanna make it up/ I wanna make my skin adapt to sun/ No barrier fun.”
Really, there’s hardly any slack from front to back on Sisterworld, and its highlights are numerous: The lumbering bassline and orchestral breakdowns on “Here Comes All The People;” the meandering, ghostly pianos that boil over near the end of “Drip;” the caveman stomp-rock and call-and-response screams of “Scarecrows On A Killer Slant” — and these doesn’t even cover the album’s first 20 minutes. To account for them all here would leave me breathless, leave you bored, and spoil more than a few of the record’s many surprises. Suffice it to say that it’s a rare treat to hear a band with this level of craft, attentiveness and sheer unpredictability produced as well as Liars are on Sisterworld, and it affords them a sonic depth and range they’ve heretofore never achieved. It’s a seamless listen, where every sound feels perfectly calibrated and situated to pump the blood straight through the heart of every song. Ultimately, the album represents a refinement of every base Liars have covered prior to it, coupled with a mixture of musical maturity and an exploratory vigor that make for an altogether astonishing experience — one that gradually burrows into your marrow and sets up camp in your spine. Sisterworld is clearly a statement by a band at the height of its formidable powers, and what may be even more exciting than the record itself is that Liars show no signs of letting up.