In recent interviews, Liars’ Angus Andrew has spoken about the duality of how a mess can be perceived—beauty to some, disaster to others—and how that conceptual exercise informed the L.A. band’s seventh LP. It’s there in the cover art and the album title, right down to the way Mess can, well, feel messy, like two musically disparate EPs were shoved together for fear of missing a deadline. In the same interviews Andrew is quick to point out that Mess is an “off-the-cuff” record, that Liars intentionally forsook the painstaking, overwrought approach of making WIXIW, Mess’ predecessor, in favor of an instinctual, spontaneous one. He seems nostalgic for a time when Liars weren’t in the public eye, when they could create without the demands of record labels, the press cycle and having expectations shoved on each release with increasing vigor. I suppose it can be bittersweet being one of Thom Yorke or Portishead’s favorite bands—a dream on one hand, a noose on the other.
Obviously there’s nothing inherently wrong with Liars desiring simpler times, or with the band deliberately freeing themselves of the high-art strictures they’ve notoriously placed on themselves since their early-aughts genesis. In fact, the approach sounds healthy. But by and large, Mess doesn’t sound like a serious band taking it a little easier, or one having more fun—unless “fun” is meant to border on parody. Instead most of the album scans as half-baked and tossed off, a swift break with the quality of the band’s prior output. Surely it’s possible to alter the rules of engagement without watering down the outcome.
The lion’s share of Mess’ first half is, by Liars’ own vaunted standards, uninspired. These songs act as if the mid-aughts electro boom never happened, that Justice and Soulwax didn’t already turn buzzsaw synths and step sequencers into weird pop tools of dance floor transcendence. Perhaps Liars weren’t aiming for “blog wave” (or whatever one might call the micro-genre that monopolized Hype Machine charts for years)—maybe something like Pretty Hate Machine was the goal?—but that’s where they landed. Given the way dance trends tend to drift from the underground up, we expect for, say, a pop star like Katy Perry to co-opt trap music. But it’s bewildering to me that Liars are even accidentally toying with a sound that was so pervasive during the time of their own entrancing ascent. Which helps explain why it’s probably accidental, but, unfortunately, not why these songs exist at all. As I weathered Mess’ first half, I began to wonder if the band’s self-imposed freedom and lightness worked against them, making it too easy to settle.
Fortunately, Mess has plenty of redemptive moments, and they’re almost entirely cordoned off to its latter half. Situated after the initial electro blitz, “Can’t Hear Well” hints at a more thoughtful approach, as a lone gated synth played in a major key does more to convey emotional depth at this point than the pummeling could ever hope to. Then, after “Mess on a Mission,” which is by far the most compelling of the dance numbers, Liars take us on another journey entirely. “Darkslide” and “Boyzone” are cavernous, dead-eyed and paranoid, which, let’s be honest, is Liars’ best look. “Dress Walker” uses claps and horns (or something horn-like) to allay the brooding, one-dimensional feel that an all-digital production can convey with robotic stoicism. And the closer “Left Speaker Blown” takes that approach further as piano clinks and mournful strings join a loping synth bass walk in what is perhaps one of Liars’ most elegiac and beautiful songs to date. Indeed, its coda features a lone, breathy synth that unfurls like a tattered flag planted high atop a snow-covered peak, and, like the band’s best work, the song is comparable to little else in the pop/indie landscape—a far cry from the tepid feel that permeates too much of this Mess.