Prime Bush Tucker: Luke Turner On Liars’ TFCF

Angus Andrew retreated to the remote Australian bush to make the first Liars album featuring himself as the sole member. Here's what he concocted.

Liars albums have always dealt with how the human psyche reacts to and with place, whether real or imaginary, urban or wilderness. Much of this might have been unconscious, a result of the group’s constant moving around the world for base and recording, from the great old East German studios of Berlin (Drum’s Not Dead), rural New Jersey (They Were Wrong, So We Drowned) to the ambivalent and at times hellish portrait of Los Angeles conjured up on Sisterworld, arguably their masterpiece. Yet Liars have always had such a singularity of approach that these never felt like albums that sounded like a place, in the way that lesser groups might ape Laurel Canyon vibes, or smacked-out mittel-European Aussie transplant post punk, and so on. Their mastery of the extremes of aggression and hyper-sensitivity in their music, combined with Angus Andrew’s lyricism and most importantly weird vocal and physical presence, means that their seven albums to date have been potent explorations of the collision between internal and external worlds, psychological breakdown, paranoia, and altered states.

To do this, Liars have seemed to channel an essence of their surroundings (always the weirdest essence, like the way a drug dealer smashing through Angus’ bedroom wall shaped the violent paranoia of Sisterworld) through the dynamic he had with long-time musical collaborator Aaron Hemphill. For whatever reason (and none is given though we’re told the parting was ‘amicable’) Hemphill has departed and Angus Andrew is now Liars alone. What’s more, he’s moved himself physically across the Pacific from LA to a remote part of his Australia where apparently he lives isolated on the sea shore, the bush behind and the tides before him, paddling across the waves every day or so to get food. I’m not sure if I ought to say it’s a move that ‘suits’ Andrew, for there seems to be a sense of unease and aloneness (note not loneliness) here that could make such a comment feel like a fetishisation of collapse, but it definitely works. Liars’ last two albums, WIXIW and Mess knock the spots off anything by most of the contemporaries, but listen back after a good immersion in TFCF they do feel like records by a band thinking that the way to move forward was from refinement and polish, and in doing so buffing away some of the rough edges that make them unique.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Andrew decided to go it alone. There’s already been one radical move, when after their first album he and Hemphill ditched the rest of the line-up and stopped playing material from it, instead just unleashing the spectral racket of They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, blowing minds/alienating fans (depending on your outlook) in the process. For Liars to survive, Liars as were sometimes have to die.

Which is why TFCF is markedly different from its predecessors. Recorded by Andrew alone in his new Australian home, it’s the sound of someone blinking their eyes open in a new reality, as if he were a Robinson Crusoe working out how to survive with the means at his disposal on the shoreline. It feels not only like a man trying to find his musical feet but perhaps himself too, in returning to the country where he was born. Just look at those track titles, all nervously putting stepping into new ground, uncertain at what might be there – ‘Cred Woes’, ‘The Grand Delusional’, ‘Cliche Suite’, ‘Staring At Zero’. There’s no concept to this Liars album, perhaps for the first time, aside from Andrew obviously, viscerally at times, trying to make sense of who he is and what he does, and why.

It’s most evident and most useful to start at the end, with album closing track ‘Crying Fountain’. A processed moaning chant, a regular hollow clang, like a bereaved farmer fashioning a coffin for his wife in some isolated barn, and the sound of birdsong. It’s the track that Liars came on to at their recent stunning London show, a distillation of where Andrew’s head seems to be at right now. ‘Emblems Of Another Story’ begins in much the same way, all birds and textures before a simply picked acoustic guitar (another Liars first) builds unexpectedly to a languidly joyous chorus of acceptance: "all our rights were wrong", Andrew sings, doing a call and response to himself, disappearing within.

When the tracks do get going there’s a massive ramshackle hip hop influence throughout, Madlib beats shuffling through the undergrowth in accompaniment to weird sounds snatched from the surroundings of Andrew’s new home. ‘Face To Face With My Face’ opens with what might be a sample of insects outside, looped to rattle away before the electronic hums come in and… "Ooaaaahhhuuhhhhhhhhuuugghhh" he vocalises, as if as the title suggests he’d tripped out to see a vision of himself, hairily peering back from the darkness. ‘Cliche Suite’ has a weird quasi-early music synth riff, as if Andrew had scrumped Michael Nyman’s take on Purcell as heard in Peter Greenway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract.

Amid all the concepts and sonic derangement Liars’ pop sensibilities have often been overlooked. Most of their albums have ended with a ballad that might have their melodies recontextualised into something far more commercial. Here, these pop up throughout. In ‘Emblems Of Another Story’ Andrew sings, sleepily and sweetly "every time you call I’m taken back" over a thin organ line and beats that lope like a nag towards the stable at dusk. ‘No Tree No Branch’ is one of the weirdest catchy songs I’ve heard in ages, a piano melody pranging along as if it’s been played at double speed, the vocals hyper anxious. Someone could easily do do a pretty sweet happy hardcore cover of it.

More than anything, it’s the oddness of Liars, that weird shamanic essence of Angus Andrew that has shaped their best albums and most unhinged gigs, that has returned. This was abundantly evident at that recent Visions Festival gig, one of the heaviest and most hectic I’ve seen the band do in what must be about 50 encounters. We’re often told that recent years have seen precious little in the way of sonic advancement. This might well be so in the flat and dreary plain of indie rock, but the sonic terrain that Liars have covered in the past decade and a half has been varied, unexpected, occasionally hard to negotiate but always ultimately rewarding. TFCF is undoubtedly a record for recalibrating Andrew’s personal and sonic compass but, rather thrillingly, suggests that despite the realignment, great things lie in the future. They lurk, out in the bush, waiting to get into Angus Andrew’s mind.

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