Music Features

The Liars - Best Band in the World?

Have you heard the Liars? Believe me, you'd remember if you did. If you haven't I'd encourage you to download a few songs off their most recent album Drums Not Dead, listen to them in their entirety, no matter how painful that may seem at first, and then come back to read this.

The .05% of you who made it back heard something intriguing. Perhaps it's indefinable and you're not even sure you liked it, but you definitely heard something and you wanted to know more. I'm here to tell you what I think makes them the Best Band in the World? The question mark should be taken as a signal of my generosity of spirit to other great working bands (Radiohead, Flaming Lips, Wilco, etc.), and not as a lack of courage in my convictions. I intend to make an argument that the Liars, while barely operating in the same musical genre as those groups, still reside on a similar plane of artistic success and aesthetic merit, and perhaps even surpass them in consistency.

Assuming you get it, what is it about the Liars music that is so compelling? Unfortunately, we have few of the musicologists' gimmicks to fall back on to come up with a satisfactory answer. For instance, we can talk about how the progression of G-D-E minor-B minor caught everyone off guard the first time they heard "I Want To Hold Your Hand", or how the careening abandon of Dylan singing "How does it feel?" in "Like a Rolling Stone" made people's head spin, but in the Liars we have neither harmonic shifts nor lyrical eloquence to help us. Those explanations may not have told us much either, but it was something we could point to, sensing the secret lies in that general direction. In the Liars' music, and now I am talking specifically about their two most recent albums, They Were Wrong So We Drowned and Drums Not Dead, we have no conventional pop structures to hang on to. There typically are no chords, for example, at least not in the western diatonic sense of variations on a I-III-V foundation. Nor are the songs based on a drone in the Eastern sense, with a root note around which a melody can snake its way in some scalar pattern. Furthermore, the lyrics, when they appear at all, are usually semi-literate chants, like this fragment from Broken Witch:

I, I am the boy

She, she is the girl

He, he is the bear

We, we, we...

Similarly, the Liars are not easily dismissed as a purely percussive outfit for several reasons, the most obvious being that the rhythms are mind-numbingly simplistic. They aren't exploring the limits of syncopation or wallowing in technical skill. The beats, if you could call them that, rarely get more complicated than an arrhythmic heartbeat - a fact which is revealing.

The sound is really pre-structural, a sonic digression, an attempt to replicate the first longings toward musical expression. The music can be dissonant but is not purely atonal, as if they had recently discovered the rudiments that would eventually become scales and chords and were no longer simply making noise. The lyrics, which aren't trying to imply anything beyond themselves, are sung in monotone, repetitive phrases, which hover around some root of their own. And the rhythmic patterns are never gimmicky and might be what a child would come up with soon after learning to keep time. It's as if they were attempting to strip away everything, literally everything, learned about music and return to a method of direct expression. This being art, made by ex-art students no less, it can only be an example of the purest artifice. But that's what art is, and great art convinces us despite the artifice.

The Liars have taken up primordial subjects, the fear of the female, the mysteries of creativity, and have chosen to explore them in a primordial way. Rather than looking for answers through analysis, they seek enlightenment through experience. They aren't trying to explain our innermost drives, they want us to feel them by stripping away the ornamentation we have built up over centuries to hide them. As such, their work stands as an astounding achievement, in that they have so successfully "forgotten" everything we have all learned just by listening to the radio since childhood.

As I write there are hints that the Liars' next album, due out this summer, will be more conventional, with songs and even guitar solos. Whether that is an ironic feint or an actual change in direction we'll have to wait and see. But as it stands the band has crafted two albums without a false second, two powerful bursts of primitive noise elevated by a yearning to know more, and that is a claim only the great ones can make.