Bummer though it may be, consistency is king in rock ’n’ roll. Eclecticism, for all its artistic merits, rarely pays the bills. Acts like Radiohead and Beck seem to reinvent themselves nearly every time they release an album—but they’ve earned that privilege with titanic sales. Plus, they both emerged during the ’90s alt-rock boom, during something of a golden age for pop music, when genre cross-pollination was both encouraged and revered.
In 2012, pop radio sounds like an airbrushed, Auto-Tuned wasteland, and nobody in their right mind knows what the hell “alt-rock” means anymore. But a number of Pitchfork-approved, taste-making experimentalists have emerged in the past decade—chief among them Brooklyn trio Liars, who have based their entire career thus far on being totally unpredictable. For some bands, “changing up our style” means shifting from flange pedals to distortion or replacing live drums with programmed beats. Not Liars—their sense of experimentation is rooted in the weird, and their sonic reinventions tend to be jaw-dropping and drastic. From album to album, they often sound like a completely different band.
Their 2001 debut, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, was a noisy and gnarly take on the burgeoning dance-punk revival. Its messy, jittery irreverence had its merits, but looking back, it feels like their safest moment—certainly not a predictable prologue for the fractured, demented noise-loop madness of They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, a semi-concept album about German witchcraft that Spin deemed “unlistenable” and Rolling Stone saddled with a one-star review. In response to that hostility, Liars didn’t flinch; they dug even deeper into weirdness with 2006’s Drum’s Not Dead. It was similarly abstract, layering monstrous percussion, droning guitars, and Angus Andrew’s ethereal falsetto into a creepy-beautiful swirl.
Championed by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and suddenly thrust into the critical spotlight, Liars suddenly found themselves with a legitimate audience—one that might actually care about the results of their far-reaching experiments. They responded with their most playful and eclectic album (2007’s Liars bounced giddily from synth-pop to proggy excess) and their most elegant (2010’s Sisterworld offered beautiful layers of studio refinement—strings, pianos, horns—that anchored their darkness). Both albums maintain their mystique and edge while simultaneously widening their scope.
On their sixth and slickest studio work, WIXIW (pronounced “Wish You,” for reasons unexplained), the fearless trio—Andrew, drummer Julian Gross, multi-instrumentalist Aaron Hemphill—dive headfirst into the icy waters of trip-hop and electro-pop, never pausing to come up for air. Though they’ve dabbled with electronic elements in the past (splicing up instruments into jagged loops, smattering songs with layers of programmed noise), WIXIW utilizes its pared-down elements—synth, programming, vocals—to transport, soothe, console. It’s without a doubt their most beautiful album from a traditional pop standpoint, with Andrew’s more refined vocals soaring almost exclusively in tune over oceans of digital color. More importantly, it’s also their most rewarding.
A constant (and easy) reference point for WIXIW is Kid A, Radiohead’s fourth album and first major foray into the digital landscape. It’s a fair comparison, as evidenced by WIXIW’s opening one-two punch of “The Exact Colour of Doubt” and “Octagon.” The former is a spacey lullaby built on echoing synths and fractured drum samples, slowly unfurling into a web of stereo-panned hand-claps and droning guitar delay. The latter is a moaning, click-clack ambient ghost world, sort of like a hungover “Idioteque.” Meanwhile, “His and Mine Sensations,” with its vocal loops and thick layers of synth-bass, could have blended perfectly with (and topped, for that matter) the crumbling electro-echoes on The King of Limbs. And on the brief acoustic-noise duet “Ill Valley Prodigies,” Andrew calls to mind Thom Yorke after an all-night cocaine binge, singing in a hoarse falsetto just short of angelic.
But WIXIW rises above any and all Radiohead references. The longer it winds on, the deeper it burrows into your brain, inhabiting sonic spaces both alien and familiar. On the ominous “Who Is the Hunter,” Liars mingle electronic pulses, looping steel drums, a tease of tear-jerking strings, and a masterful falsetto that twists and turns in a manner both sexy and terrifying. “No. 1 Against the Rush” finds the band at their most immediate, with pristinely-recorded synths spiraling underneath Andrew’s surprisingly tender vocal. “I want you/I want you out,” he sings, his nimble voice morphing from guttural tones to high, emphatic sighs. In terms of pure vision, songwriting prowess, and sonic wizardry, it’s a mesmerizing peak on an album splitting at the seams with them.