Liars TFCF

[Mute; 2017]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: acoustic, electronic, field recordings, vaporwave?
Others: Matthew Revert, early Beck, nature itself

I
There’s been an ominous proliferation of talking points surrounding TFCF, its whole existence haunted from the start by things people ought to know or think about the album, about the circumstances of its creation, about Liars, etc. Perhaps this has always been the case, but it looks to me as though TFCF comes with even more of that, that it’s more easily drawn out and affixed than usual, even for an artist of the comparative status (i.e., relatively long-lived and well-respected), and that it might very well be slightly more interesting than average. That remains to be seen. But before we get too much further in, something should really be clarified: TFCF is ominous and haunted, yes, but in a way that’s mostly harmless — in an aesthetic-promotional way — and the weight is only the weight of what should be thought or said.

A brief summary of things to be said, then:

(a) unlike previous Liars albums, there’s a heavy reliance here on acoustic instrumentation, as well as the use of samples and field recordings,
(b) which are signs, more concrete now than before, of yet another move to a different country, to a different environment — to the bush, to a national park north of Sydney,
(c) and Angus Andrew (now the only remaining Liar after an apparently amicable if not easy separation) lives there.

Still, compelling as a story’s neat arrangement of the facts can be, there are limits to what they can really tell us in any/every case. Not that this is surprising or constitutes an entire philosophical viewpoint.

II
Liars have been allotted something that’s both an obligation and a burden: perpetual reinvention — which is not quite the same as a drive to novelty as such, bearing more on the previous output of the artist in question than a more general or absolute conception of invention as it does. It’s a burden that they might have brought on themselves by so cruelly springing their second album (They Were Wrong, So We Drowned) on the hapless, baffled critics/populace, a feat whose subsequent repetition has turned into an expectation. But it’s an expectation that has been pretty well lived up to on albums since, even to the point where the risk of perpetual reinvention — that it will eventually undermine itself and become its own form of stagnation — has been allayed. TFCF fits in well enough with that part of the story. It has sufficient new features, sweepingly introduced so as to constitute a more-than-satisfying reinvention. So acoustic instrumentation, something Liars had hitherto generally eschewed, can be found here and found in diverse forms. There are times when it appears under the aspect of melancholy, with loops of sampled guitars plucked and echoing, but there are also times when stringed instruments of some sort are strummed, like on the two jaunty-sad tracks “No Help Pamphlet” and “No Tree No Branch.”

And yet, such things (novelty, reinvention) should not be exaggerated. There are a number of ways TFCF will not feel so wholly alien to someone familiar with the rest of Liars’ output. Angus’s aforementioned voice, for example, has always been a constant, and here it pre-emptively undercuts the threat of indie-folk blandness that a recourse to acoustic instruments might have had, and it does so in the same way that Liars have always pulled off seemingly earnest, even tender songs without becoming trite or obvious. Likewise, in whatever form it has taken, whether driven by man or machine, there has almost always been the presence of a tribal percussive throb with an air of menace or bewilderment still humming just beneath the surface, occasionally spluttering out onto the unfolding scene. Or take the first song from the album made available to the general public, “Cred Woes,” with its lyrics of workplace bad faith and synth arpeggios that wouldn’t have been the slightest bit out of place on one of Liars’ more recent albums; nor would the pulsing noise-techno morass of “Face to Face with My Face” — and these aren’t the only ones. Perhaps these songs take on a more chaotic, messier, and a little dirtier appearance than they might have in another possible incarnation, but they’re still clearly of the same extraction as what came before. As striking as the presence of an acoustic guitar or two might be, it would be a stretch to make instrumentation itself what the album is all about.

III
Discussing where a Liars album is made is unavoidable. Location is big (on the scale these things take place in) for Liars, because a move to Berlin preceded Drum’s Not Dead , a move to L.A. preceded Sisterworld, and with this, there’s the possibility of a comparative history. So here’s a new move — a new move, as mentioned, to Australia, and not just that to a man-in-nature location provides. But for the first time, it’s a move that has immediate, rather than indirect, implications for the album. No doubt with Liars’ previous albums there has been some truth in the thought that geography — or the idea of a place, an overall impression — has played a role, that by some kind of osmosis or inspiration it filtered into what was happening on a given album, that Angus sang “Why did you pass that bum on the street” specifically because he was in L.A., etc. But Australia is on this album: recordings from the bush, from a place about an hour north of Sydney, reachable only by boat, are incorporated or interspersed throughout, sometimes more discretely, sometimes less, with the seams left showing, for the sake of artifice.

Microphones pointed into the wilderness also pick up traces of the ramshackle constructions of human habitation on the edge of it all, an incursion into a new kind of patterning. There are patterns in both rural and urban settings, but the patterns look different. “Natural rhythms” might be mentioned, a complexity of its own kind, but this isn’t pure nature, not at all. Too many marks of interference. The place, then — the source of the sounds — is buried by the human hands and mechanical tools that have fashioned it into something other than what it might have been. One of the more intriguing things Angus mentioned in interviews before the album was the fact that he’d been listening to a lot of vaporwave; I’ll leave it to someone with a stronger urge to do so to catalogue every trace or dismiss it as a red herring, but you could begin with the pitched-down peculiarities that figure here and there, or perhaps less superficially (but then what else is there?), there’s a kind of cut-up-and-juxtapose method at play; the songs have distorted edges, choppy sonic intrusions with no business being there easing transitions from song to song, overlaying or underlying in unexpected ways.

Even on the sensory surface, then, in the manifold there are determinations that, like every object presented to the senses, must be presented only partially. This leaves gaps in TFCF, a leftover feeling, one of seepage and spillage. But no projection of images or words from the listener’s corrupted mind is necessary, no requirement to add a layer or narrative to supplement the music. It’s all in how the whole is assembled, in the actual existing parts — in their diversity, their succession, their not just being outside one another, side by side, but infinitely contained in one another — and in how the facts are folded in with the lot. Because while something might be a vestigial appendage from one angle, it’s just the body’s organs from another.

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