When New York's Liars released their second album, They Were Wrong So We Drowned, the other month, Rolling Stone gave it one star out of five. Spin graded it an "F" and called it "unlistenable," and Billboardpanned it as "abrasive," "self-indulgent," and "a gigantic step backward." What made the rejection particularly unusual is that these magazines had loved Liars' first album, and the follow-up had itself met with praise elsewhere, including Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times. But the story of Liars' divided reception isn't really about whether the album is any good; it's an object lesson in the risks a band faces in straying from formula at this moment in time—and in the limits of the current critical taste for music with a retro bent. The fact is that They Were Wrong So We Drowned is a spellbinding album, if not one that is easy to listen to.
In 2002, despite its modest sales, Liars' first album, They Threw Us in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, earned widespread acclaim. Rolling Stone deemed it "one of the most bone-rattlingly ferocious records you'll hear all year" and exhorted listeners to "dig the new breed." The band's frenetic, unpredictable music came out of the same milieu that had catapulted revivalist rockers like the Strokes to fame. But at the same time their lurching, bass-heavy aesthetic offered an intriguing update on the garage rock conventions of peers like the Walkmen and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (whose singer, Karen O, currently dates Liars' frontman Angus Andrew, and whose producer, David Sitek, recorded They Were Wrong). While the Strokes and the Walkmen have revived the scuzzy, moody sound of Velvet Underground and Television, Liars' muscular grooves, like those of !!! and the Rapture, took up the funk-oriented baton of late '70s and early '80s bands like Gang of Four and James Chance & the Contortions —bands that fused funk's low-end wobble and punk's overdriven wallop and introduced what is commonly known as "funk-punk."
But on They Were Wrong, Liars abandon the emphatic rhythms and extroverted refrains of their debut and replace them with meandering tape loops, squalls of feedback, and song structures that revel in going nowhere. (If you wonder what happened to the rhythm section, you've got a keen ear: The bassist and drummer left the band after the last record.) It would be easy not to like the new album on first listen. Having left by-the-numbers "dance rock" behind, They Were Wrong feels like a zone of transition. It begins with tumbledown drums, rickety, dissonant guitar figures, and the sound of patch cords being unplugged. When the hook finally hits, Andrew chants, "I no longer/ Want to be a man/ I want to be a horse/ Men have small hearts/ I need a tail." While anthemic, this lyrical approach is not quite "We have our finger on the pulse of America"—the rallying cry with which the band kicked off their career. The record continues for some 40 minutes of sluggish tribal percussion, shambling, tuneless guitars, and despondent, often all-but-inaudible lyrics about witches.
That's one more thing not in Liars' favor: They Were Wrong is a concept album about witch trials, the pagan sabbath Walpurgisnacht, and Brocken Mountain—the mystical German peak immortalized in Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain. Prog rock may be coming back in fashion—witness the epic post-punk of the Mars Volta—but not enough to make non-ironic concept albums safe for hipsters. Whatever Liars' reputed live skills, this is not, as a Strokes album might conceivably be, an album for Friday nights in a dive bar, frugging to the jukebox and chugging Pabst Blue Ribbon.
But They Were Wrong is hardly "unlistenable." And in fact it's doing something quite interesting: Turning from the danceable post-punk of the early '80s to the introverted sonic experiments of the same era, Liars explore an alternate set of possibilities that never found mainstream favor, even though they sparked imaginations across generations of basement noiseniks. What the clanging "Steam Rose From the Lifeless Cloak" lacks in forward energy it makes up for in a steadily building updraft of organ and guitar and a tenuous balance between stasis and development. "There's Always Room on the Broom," a grinding spiral of ring-modulated organ and falsetto wail, is a pop song for a planet of intolerable gravity; it may be what the Clipse's " Grindin' " sounds like on Jupiter. Even the most incoherent segments, like the muffled drumming, groans, and thunder of "Read the Book That Wrote Itself," make sense in the context of the whole album; they're the gray skies across which Liars' lightning flashes. Throughout, They Were Wrong shelves funk-punk in favor of a new set of hipster references: Sonic Youth's early, gravelly, feedback mantras, Cabaret Voltaire's tape experiments, and the disemboweled boogie of Public Image Ltd.'s Metal Box. (If the album has a failing, it's that the band left the tags on too many of their thrift-store finds; they won't sidestep the pitfalls of retro merely by claming to be better rock historians than their peers. But Liars deserve credit for showing that there's life beyond the cowbell.)
With the revival rock phenomenon in search of new ways to churn the old chords, and with so many critics rushing to declare Liars' new contribution inadmisssable, the rules of playing along with the re-enactment become clear. Turn out a "tepid" record, as Rolling Stone declared the Walkmen's latest, and get two stars for it. But abandon the most popular aspects of period music and get pilloried for being difficult. Or maybe Liars set themselves up for the sacrifice; perhaps adding Metal Machine Music— Lou Reed's famously difficult, widely panned 1975 double LP of squealing guitar feedback—to their résumé was part of the plan. After all, you don't call an album They Were Wrong So We Drowned without wanting to look like a martyr. Whether Liars were being iconoclastic or just plain stubborn, though, in rubbing post-punk against the grain they've succeeded in producing an album as bewitching as it is bewildering.