John Peel once said of the Fall that “They are always different, they are always the same”. It is a sentiment that often holds true for post-punk groups of every variety, whether referring to those that formed during the late ’70s and early ’80s, or those that emerged during the early 2000’s revival. Certainly, when talking about the once Australian-American outfit Liars it remains a particularly apt description while scanning over their seventeen year career. Reinvention is as central to Liars’ history as a regular line-up change is to the Fall’s own. Yet, for all of the constant pivoting, it has never been challenging to spot a Liars track.
Initially an atonal funk outfit akin to James Chance, capable of filling a dancefloor with oddball tunes as quickly as they could clear them by playing the last four bars of said songs for thirty minutes (literally) they then morphed into a scuzzy ambient trio followed by experimental percussionists. Add to that a brief stint as standard art rockers, a minimalist electronica outfit and glitchy 80’s synth freaks, and what you have are a band which constantly made the effort to make each LP a distinct facet of their malleable sound. It was always new. It was always Liars and often, the main cohesive seemed to be their somewhat sick sense of humour, musically and lyrically.
Then, following on from their seventh album, Mess, the divisive keytar album one might have assumed they were hitting a wall, primarily interested in electronic music and set to keep it that way. So in a sense, they were fortunate to have experienced a gradual implosion. Reinvention was no longer a choice, but a necessity when drummer Julian Gross and multi-instrumentalist Aaron Hemphill jumped board over the course of those three years.
Liars became solely the sound of Angus Andrews. Initially, that news worried this writer in the lead up to TFCF. From a spectator’s viewpoint, Andrews and Hemphill were necessary opposites. Having one without the other seemed unfathomable. Andrews was the lunatic, the ranting and chaotic front-man who might call for the group to dispense with guitars and perform all of the songs on tom drums. Hemphill on the other hand, was the rational force who could better hone such ideas and make Andrews’ rabid notions into a consistent record.
Without Hemphill, it is immediately noticeable that a limb had been lopped off and a greater degree of disorder has been granted entry. The new album is all over the place, sequenced to play more like a rough collage of highly contrasting materials that spans the group’s evolution over two decades. Yet, this kind of mess makes TFCF shine. It is a document of confusion and loneliness, a frank exploration of losing one’s direction and the struggle to keep on trucking.
Flitting between countless styles, from Americana to the quintessential groove of the post-punk revival era, with daft bouts of faux-Mexican mariachi, chilling minimalist techno, violent bursts of percussion channelled through various effect pedals and creepy, David Lynch spoken word segments, it is the unnervingly fraught trip down a broken memory lane.
TFCF starts off on a predictable note and one, which succeeds in depicting the change as a creative divorce as Andrews described it recently in a Reddit Ask Me Anything. With layers of desolate acoustic guitars serving as an ambient overture to the opening song ‘The Grand Delusional’, his sorrowful howl makes no secret of the loneliness felt during the writing process. There is not an enormous amount of self-pity present though, as Andrews quickly shuns the stereotypical lonely man character in favour of a more warped madcap figure who pulls such tricks as inserting the ‘My Sharona’ riff into tracks that might otherwise pan out like Throbbing Gristle at their grimmest moments. Constantly making light of his situation or giving upbeat ideas a more morose undertone, what comes across is a fascinating narrative about trying to save face, while one’s thoughts wander into more ominous territories.
By track three, ‘Staring At Zero’, he has revived the sinister art punk groove of the group’s debut, They Threw Us All In A Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top. It is not an outright case of time travel however. In actuality, he is treating it as a broken entity, which cannot escape a present day gloom. Like a case of musical, this he follows with acceptance on the bittersweet ‘No Help Pamphlet’ which states that “people are strings that we never untie”, before adding that we “try to explain but the train never stops for us.”
To some extent, a great many of these songs could have slotted in perfectly on most of Liars’ previous collections, but the beauty lies in the fact that there are a few too many pieces missing for such to be possible. With the albums two strongest moments, ‘No Branch No Tree’ and ‘Cred Woes’ shining examples here, their strength obviously lies in their catchiness, but the real intrigue comes from the sense of loss. TFCF is skeletal, stripped down and occasionally broken, but it works because it is aware of its reality. It is the climactic rap battle in 8 Mile, where Eminem decides to admit that his life sucks. By doing so, he produces something stellar, the crowd roars and Brittany Murphy falls for him. Andrews concedes to his existing within the wreckage. His creative partners are gone. He is no longer young and he cannot really bring back the past. That’s his story now, and by honestly using that material, he has contributed something new and crucial to the Liars discography. By embracing the collapse, Liars has become an intensely humane group and by revealing that side, they have managed to evolve once more.