[Welcome to Sophomore/Sophomoric, where we'll catalog the tiptoed journeys of the literally thousands of bands who have attempted, not all of them successfully, to navigate their way from debut success and past the proverbial "sophomore slump" into the rarefied air of "sophomore glory." Is that a term? It'd be better if it was alliterative. How about, "sophomore splendor"? That works better, yeah.]
Words by Jacob Barron
Albums: They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (2001) & They Were Wrong, So We Drowned (2004)
Rolling Stone gave Liars’ sophomore effort, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, one measly star (out of five) and a brief, pompously sneering review. Spin one-upped the critical vitriol by giving it zero stars and declaring the album “unlistenable.” Both magazines also complained that the album was a well-known associate of Satan, and had once been seen throwing puppies into the Grand Canyon while cackling maniacally. They didn’t just hate it; they hated it with the intensity of a thousand hot fiery suns, the type of hatred typically reserved for pedophiles, recently-acquitted child murderesses, and that one guy who just cut you off on I-95, because seriously, fuck that guy.
To use another snappy, alliterative term to judge a band’s second effort, many critics considered They Were Wrong… to be an example of sophomore suicide, or sophomore seppuku, if you want to be even more graphic. The album was the small dagger that Liars had thrust viciously into their own stomach, disemboweling themselves to atone for having dishonored their masters, which I guess RS and Spin believed themselves to be.
It was more bitterness than distaste. Liars had built up a measure of goodwill from the lacerating, scene-friendly dance-punk of their debut, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, and now the critical consensus was that they were throwing it all away with a clattering, witch-themed Halloween soundtrack. What’s really baffling though is why anyone thought that They Were Wrong… was so different from its predecessor in the first place. Everyone seemed to think that both albums were built from completely dissimilar DNA, and that They Were Wrong… was an unpredictably wacky left-turn album in the spirit of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.
Sure, you can do the twist to [sic] “Mr Your On Fire Mr” and look like less of an idiot than if you were doing it to They Were Wrong… opener “Broken Witch,” but the noisiness and attitude that can be found throughout Liars’ first album very clearly informs their second. “The Garden Was Crowded And Outside” has a brutal, chant-like quality, along with absolutely thrash-worthy climaxes, that sort of sounds like a more rambunctious version of “Hold Hands And It Will Happen Anyway,” which is They Were Wrong…’s most well-liked and conventionally listenable track. Both albums have an edge, but whereas They Threw Us All… has an edge that’s strictly rooted in sound, They Were Wrong… has an edge that’s rooted in mood. They both accost the listener with the same amount of intensity, but They Were Wrong… does so implicitly; it uses propaganda where the debut used bullets.
Liars even left a huge hint in their first album of what they’d do on their second in the form of closer “This Dust Makes That Mud.” After about eight minutes of a winding, repetitive bass riff, punctuated by squealing guitars, distant howling and murmured speech, the song settles into a single loop of the same drum and bass we’ve heard all along, topped with a nervously screeching guitar. And then it continues, over and over and over again, for another 20 minutes before the tape slows to a sudden stop. For an album that spends its first eight songs aggressively bringing it to the listener, a 30-minute, twitching finale that sounds like someone slowly drifting into madness isn’t exactly a no-brainer. But when you consider it, it shows that Liars’ love for creepy, supernatural weirdness (not to mention outrageously long album titles) was apparent long before they were considered “unlistenable.” “This Dust Makes That Mud” would be right at home on the band’s second album, but works best where it is, as a very long, rickety bridge that joins the two works together.
They Were Wrong… is, in my opinion, a pretty logical continuation of the eccentricities that are hinted at in the first eight tracks, and laid bare in the finale, of They Threw Us All… It’s all a bit tighter and more thorough the second time around however, and I think that explains why They Were Wrong… has aged better. Both albums were cutting-edge when they were released, I’d say, but They Were Wrong… still feels challenging, whereas They Threw Us All… remains a sturdy example of a bygone era, which, in turn, raises the question of whether or not something can truly be good if it’s only good considered within the context in which it was created.
I had a professor in college who urged us, using both lectures and the threat of lower grades, not to analyze the poems we were reading by looking into the author’s past or what historical event had taken place right before the poem’s publication. Instead, he talked less about what the poet was getting at, and more about how they were getting at it. We’d discuss how each line, comma, word or hard return shifted or twisted the poem into something that went beyond its surface. In other words, it wasn’t where they were going, so much as how they were making the journey.
In this way, They Threw Us All… is a well-executed punk rock time capsule, one that sounds quintessentially like 2001 and relies on the tools of the genre and some notable additions. The band states its intentions then goes about punching them into their listeners, with ass-kicking results, and while they aren’t “dance-punk” in the purest sense of the term, they still fit into a particular silo and remain easily categorized. With They Were Wrong… Liars had basically the same intentions, but expressed them in their own uniquely cerebral, unconventional way, one that became their trademark after this album. Even if you prefer the band’s punk proclivities, it’s still admirable of Liars to swing for the fences with a batshit concept, when they could’ve just as easily restated their thesis.
Step Forward, Step Back, or Lateral Move?: Step Forward