Liars have come full circle. After long stints in New York City and Berlin, the storied trio is again based in Los Angeles, the city of its founding. And yet, judging by its new fifth album, there's been no backtracking musically. Sisterworld is all about unsettling tension, assaulting rhythms, stark beauty, and stifling atmosphere. A challenging album even for a band that sheds its skin each time around, it's riddled with abrupt twists and smacks of grim acceptance. The songs fly in the face of so many of today's giddy indie anthems, which is no accident.
"It felt weird to be disconnected with a lot of the things that were being made," says singer-guitarist Angus Andrew, gauging his distance from musical trends. Having returned from years of living overseas, the band members saw America in a new light. "We began to look at the general culture of optimism throughout the country ... and then we focused in on L.A., and how it's so evident here."
As implied by its title, Sisterworld considers how people craft identities for themselves in the fringes of society, as if in a parallel stream of existence. Walking through L.A. after moving back, Andrew soaked up the crime, homelessness, and failed dreams of stardom that the bulk of the city's residents ignore. He lived above a legal marijuana dispensary that was a constant target for robbery until its security guard was shot and killed. And yet life in the city went on, as it does all over the world.
"It was very visceral," Andrew admits. "When that sort of thing happens, on one hand it's pretty — for want of a better word — inspirational, but at the same time you're kind of disgusted that you feel that way. In a way, I was turned on by this violence because it fit the bill for what I was writing about."
There's a bitterness dripping from several songs on Sisterworld, from Andrew's chanted repetition of the title on "Proud Evolution" to the accusatory lyrics of "Scarecrows on a Killer Slant": "Why'd you pass the bum on the street?/'Cause he bothered you." Violence is implicit, and at times explicit, throughout the album. Despite a lovely choirlike approach, first single "Scissor" is haunting even before being ambushed by scattergun instrumentation. The second single, "The Overachievers," is more direct but no less eerie, with Andrew waxing cynical about the trap of domesticity. Of course, he isn't alone. Multi-instrumentalist Aaron Hemphill and drummer Julian Gross contribute bracing shards of sound as well as moments of drifting quietude.
For all of Liars' art-rock tenacity, the band has found success over the course of a circuitous career. Cementing the trio's connections, Sisterworld has spawned a bonus disc of "remixes and reinterpretations" from Thom Yorke, Deerhunter's Bradford Cox, TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe, and others. And Liars recently joined members of St. Vincent and Tropicália legends Os Mutantes for an edition of Beck's online cover-album experiment. Led by Beck, the motley cast tackled INXS' Kick, of all things.
Settled for the time being in L.A., the members of Liars are now just another facet of the city they've so unflinchingly examined. Whatever comes next, location will always be key to the band's work. "It affects you personally when you move anyway," Andrew argues, "so that's the starting point. But it's up to the artist as to whether they engage in their environment. It depends whether you're looking for that inspiration or not." Or whether, in the case of Sisterworld, inspiration comes looking for you.