If Liars set out to create a dance album with Mess, they succeeded—that is, if you’re meant to dance in a dimly lit haunted warehouse. The band is known for their innovation and sheer unpredictability over their decade and a half-long career, and this record forges some new trails for them while holding on to their roots. Compared with their last effort, the sparse and electronic (almost Radiohead-esque) WIXIW, this record is much heavier, trudging into firmly industrial territory. In fact, it’s almost like its evil twin let loose. Right from the start, this record sounds like it could be the soundtrack to a zombie runway show or a strobe-heavy dark disco party. There’s something very sinister under the surface, though, something that manifests more and more as the record advances.
The first half of the record is very dance-forward. It remains grounded through its methodical beats and drony synths that sound so calculated and exacting, almost too much so. Like much good electronic music, it finds its strength by building on repetition and carefully crafted formulas. Most tracks seem to start with an established beat and some kind of drony synth lead. As the loops go on, more synth layers are added until the beat drops and everything seems to explode. “I’m No Gold” and “Pro Anti Anti” do this exceptionally well. The band also excels at build and decay in this record—creating layers of sound building to a climax and then decaying into quiet. Their compositions here almost always evoke a sense of uneasiness and evil that seems out of place. “Can’t Hear Well” and “Mess on a Mission” provide the starkly contrasting midpoints of the record. “Can’t Hear Well” is the only semblance of heartfelt emotion in a sea of heavy dullness while “Mess on a Mission” is completely breezy and danceable. They’re the tip of the iceberg—the rest of the record declines rapidly.
Of course, this is not a decline in quality necessarily. The last half of the record represents a downward spiral into madness, musically and thematically. Starting at “Boyzone,” the beats aren’t so clear-cut anymore. The songs’ dark edges intensify, but sonically, they start to decay into drudgery and dullness. Eventually, the beats disappear and we’re left with peculiar synth dirges and dissonant sound effects. Even the vocals start to sound like they’re more and more muffled. There’s not that much to grasp onto by this point, and it was my first reaction to think it was boring. But by delving deeper into the feelings conveyed by the music, I found that they’re overwhelmingly uneasy. Because it conveys this feeling, I was left a little underwhelmed. But artistically, this could be seen as a success. Looking closely, the songs narrate the speaker’s disillusionment with himself and the world, the music matching this decline.
The lyrics of this record focus on dark and self-deprecating themes, and are often oddly phrased, almost poetic at times. Even in the first half of the record, we start to see these themes come into play. The narrator seems pessimistic but earnest at the beginning, confessing “I always wondered how/to rid myself of doubt” (from “Vox Tuned D.E.D.”). Continuing with these themes and weird phrasing, one song later we hear, “Time that you clear out my clothes and my world/I’m insane” (from “I’m No Gold”). What this actually means is puzzling, but there’s a sense that he’s starting to lose hope. In “Boyzone,” the lost hope is a concrete ideal, as he mutters, “We found a place to die/It sound by name it calls me.” And at the last track “Speakers Blown,” his sign of defeat is this: “I gave up captured, without force, freely.” Hearing his slow descent into complete darkness is terrifying.
The titles of the songs, though they don’t play into the thematic content often, take on a meaning of their own. It’s interesting that the titles often refer to noise and its consequences, especially this being a dance record. From “Vox Tuned D.E.D.” to “Can’t Hear Well” to “Left Speaker Blown,” they evoke the dance floor as a dark and sinister place. And for this reason, among so many others, this record is more than the sum of its parts. Liars take us on a depressingly eerie journey, and it’s a thrill from start to finish.
“I’ve heard the wild world is wicked and the modern one is out for blood”