There’s no good place to start when digging into a Liars record. The trio, infamous at this point for their pointed stylistic shifts between records, seem to pave no common ground in any of their musical output. Labeling a project as “experimental” gives a group a certain amount of room to diverge, but the eleven tracks that make up their latest, Mess, can’t be described more accurately than by their album title.
Liars, who started out in the depths of NYC’s dance-punk scene at the turn of the century, aren’t exactly known for agreeing, or concerning themselves with, the opinions of others. Their 2004 album They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, received the worst possible reviews from both Spin and Rolling Stone, and they bit back by recording something even more bizarre for 2006’s Drum’s Not Dead. It’s one thing to ignore criticism, but it’s another thing entirely to continually change up the style of your output and still not find anything worth releasing. Unfortunately, eight years and three albums later, Liars still can’t find a niche that doesn’t sound forced.
Angus Andrew’s weird, falsetto vocals are often at odds with the gritty, industrial electronica Liars uses to cement most of the tracks on Mess: at times ethereal and other times simply ridiculous, there is never a point where they mesh appropriately with the songs they try to support. Particularly on “Pro Anti Anti”, with its monolithic chanting and upper-register harmonies, it’s likely the songs would be better off without the banal lyrics creeping up out of the wetworks, because the instrumentation that acts as the root of each song is unusually strong for Liars’ material. Heavy synths and legitimately interesting drum machine experimentation left over from Drum’s Not Dead have an Aphex Twin-like quality to them, especially on the excellent “Darkslide”.
At the end of the day, it may be Liars’ roots that so cripple their latest offering. Each track sweats New York, especially where Andrew’s drawl creeps in to gigantic drum fills, and while that can be endearing elsewhere, it never is on Mess. Maybe it’s Liars’ propensity to jump from genre to genre that leaves Mess feeling so tired, since it never truly feels like a summation of the band’s 14-year history. A little too contemporary despite its experimental trappings, Mess just ends up feeling like exactly that.