Reissue Of The Week: Sisterworld By Liars

Oobah Butler looks at the magisterial run of albums by Liars – which arguably peaks with Sisterworld – and finds that rarest of things, an artistic mission completed

Sisterworld opens with a gentle, a cappella lament. A scene that draws you in with its stupefying mysticism; inviting you to feel the sensation of staring at somebody who is bleeding out on the floor. Somebody in the process of dying. That feeling of time stopping as you realise that this is an image that will be frozen in your mind for the rest of your life.

But the world doesn’t work that way. Time doesn’t stop. There’s somebody actually there – life disappearing from their body; their guts spilling out onto the floor – and you need to spring into action. Adrenaline hits, and guitars and hectic drums flood the scene as ‘Scissor’ drags you back and forth. Then, things calm, and the blood begins to dry as you realise that your cowardice and inability to act will define you. It’s a staggering opening to a record, and not one I’ve considered in these terms for years. But now is the right time to revisit, as Liars’ fifth album Sisterworld is reissued as part of an ongoing excavation of their back catalogue.

The whole thing feels like good timing and the optimum moment to re-evaluate Liars for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the band have, almost under the radar, ceased to exist in this form. In 2017, frontman Angus Andrew’s long-term creative partner Aaron Hemphill left in something Andrew compared to a divorce, albeit amicable. This came not long after Julian Gross, the spectacular percussionist and drummer who helped give this period its texture had also left. Today, Liars thrives but is something closer to an Andrew solo project. Secondly, I’ve noticed that, every few years when I gather in a basement or a venue to see them, the congregation of faces has begun to contract. This can’t be for the reason of not producing interesting material – recent records TFCF, The Apple Drop etc. have been exceptional. But I feel a kind of injustice witnessing this band becoming weirdly overlooked. This is a group that spent the first 15 years of this century putting together one of the most fascinating runs of albums. Works of genius that form a compelling oeuvre. So, in search of an answer as to why that is happened or simply a celebration, 13 years on since its original release, I want to focus on Sisterworld, an album that stands tall in the middle of this journey.

In 2010, the year of Sisterworld’s release, Liars were flagbearers of a generation of bands who had inherited a musical world radicalised by groups such as Fugazi. A post-millennium wave of acts who you felt could do whatever they wanted as the music industry was flush and drunk on the idea that there was no end in sight; like mortgage brokers in Miami Beach. Every record of theirs to this point had had an almost obsessive commitment to a different musical style. Debut They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top was a lauded punk record made in the tradition, while follow-up They Were Wrong So We Drowned was a totally different beast. A triumph filled with squalor and psycho-experimentation that confused and offended most reviewers at the time. Each release followed this trajectory of an embrace of the new, with moves from Brooklyn to Berlin and a roulette wheel of line-up changes mirroring that artistic chaos. Then the group arrived at their self-titled effort in 2007, which was a surprising change. A collection of songs. In the notes for that record, Andrew commented that he’d “never felt like a songwriter ‘til this album.” But if the self-titled was Andrew discovering himself as a songwriter, then follow-up Sisterworld is the sound of him flexing that muscle.

It’s testament to Andrew’s journey as a songwriter that he manages to present ideas that had taken the trio entire records to explore in the past, and distil their diverse essences into cohesive pieces throughout Sisterworld. ‘Scarecrows On A Killer Slant’ – utterly demented, danceable, and a showpiece of any Liars live show, silhouetted in my memory by guitarist Hemphill trying to split a floor tom in two with a drum stick – could almost be a signature track from They Were Gone, So We Drowned. The disconcerting sparseness in instrumentation and ritualistic rhythms of ‘I Can See An Outside World’ or ‘Here Comes All The People’ somehow capturing the genius of Drums Not Dead. ‘The Overachievers’ is three-minutes trapped in a room with no windows in Lower Manhattan. Obviously, it’s worth explaining this level of diversity couldn’t have been achieved without what went before – the albums were studies, not to be confused with dry runs.

Speaking about Sisterworld as a whole, it feels important to mention that shortly before recording the album, the trio fully relocated from Berlin to Los Angeles. After dabbling with their self-titled, they fully superimposed themselves on the city, bringing in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Where The Wild Things Are producer Tom Biller. Whether it was with live shows, recordings, photographs or video shoots, they reimagined and brought life to abandoned spaces, neighbourhoods and warehouses, according to contemporaries.

And that all makes sense to me, because this record sounds exactly like Los Angeles. Now, without needing to commandeer your forward-facing camera, I know what your reaction will be: indignance. But I’m not speaking about Venice Beach, Instagram influencers, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the documentation of holidays driving the Pacific Coast Highway. The thing is, LA is quite poorly represented in pop culture, somewhat ironically. Or at least the version of Los Angeles I’ve found most visceral when spending periods there. That is a strange place. A city of noise and broken promises. It is the global capital of cranks, cults and mystics. It is a city of brains being cooked in a desert. It is David Lynch giving the same 50-second weather report every single day to his webcam. I guess it’s the sound of weirdos trying to make their art sellable.

So Liars condensing complex ideas into commerce for the purpose of an LA record would be understandable. But I think its influence is much more pervasive. The lyrical themes of the album are obsessed with the city’s many contradictions and hostile environment, screaming, “Why’d you pass the bum on the street?” as they fury at justification for basic inhumanity and try to find an answer to “How can they be saved from the way they live every day?” ‘The Overachievers’ moves through the middle classes, and a deeper search of dissatisfaction in a picture book life. On the record’s krautrock anthem, ‘Proud Evolution’, concern is split between “one hundred billion potholes” and the suffocating expanse one can only experience alone behind a wheel. Then anybody looking for a deep search within or an exorcism to remove the presence of the devil should be challenged to listen to aforementioned opener ‘Scissor’ and the follow-up ‘No Barrier Fun’, and not blank out for a few seconds and come to rocking back-and-forth, eyes rolling into the back of their heads, like the pushed bassline has activated some strange ritualistic kill switch within.

As the album progresses, the place that David Bowie described as “the loneliest and most brutal of American cities” and a 24-hour hallucination takes heed. ‘Good Night Everything’ forms a requiem to letting a part of yourself die, as you realise what you’ve exchanged for dollar bills and fries. ‘Drop Dead’ is a gorgeous topsy turvy procession that sadistically goads the listener with its own acerbic take on mortality. Somehow, above a Noah’s Arc of reels capturing the City Of Angels, this is a definitive alternative sound for what it really feels like, at least to me.

In terms of Liars’ artistic journey and their history, ‘Sisterworld’ is indisputably significant. Obviously, it represents a conclusion in their minds; something so good it’s worth completely changing tack after, given how it is the final ‘band’ album before they swapped guitars for gadgets to write electronic music with Wixiw and Mess, never to go back.

But now the dust has settled; Andrew found himself alone on an island in a national park north of Sydney before moving back to the States, venturing with each artistic move further inside and Hemphill works on his own material with his project Nonpareils in Berlin, it very much feels like this specific one has come to an end. And it is something that is complete, which is rare for a 21st Century band. Maybe that is the reason I’ve been searching for as to why the congregation at Liars live shows felt like it was beginning to disperse last few times I watched them. Not disinterest, but utter contentment. To invite Liars under your skin and experience a collective with a fervour for self-reinvention, conquest and commitment akin to Pablo Picasso, I really do recommend listening to a full movement of They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top; They Were Wrong, So We Drowned; Drum’s Not Dead; Liars; Sisterworld; Wixiw; and Mess. Venturing from place to place; from style to style. Or, if you don’t have time, and time really is money, just hit the highway, and take the last exit to Sisterworld.

Sisterworld is out today via Mute. They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, Drum’s Not Dead & Liars are all also available now on reissue

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