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Wire Recovers 154 Missing Chairs

Change Becomes Us
Pink Flag

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By this point in their peristaltic career, Wire are as much a fixation as they are a band. The impending release of a new Wire album these days creates a buzz in the brain that only gets louder and more persistent until the moment you finally get to hear the damn thing. Not that hearing it abates the buzz. No, that buzz simply gains a more recognizable shape, has its various frequencies and facets attached and layered on like a sound sculpture made out of agitated electrons, roughly polished aluminum, and a swarm of drone bees, always coiled through with literate, rather teasingly oblique lyrics that tend to lend the thing a nervous gravity. A new Wire album is a post-punk TED conference made animate and tensely flamboyant.

I doubt there’s many uninitiated reading this out there but for the benefit of those few let’s start by saying that the subject known as “Wire’s history” includes its share of checkered moments. An art-punk band that emerged in full burst in 1977 with Pink Flag, a short sharp collection – 21 tracks, 39m 19s – that was less LP and more frontal assault (if one perpetuated by a quartet of poli-sci/psychology professors in a mad hurry), they were immediately hailed for representing a kind of avant-cerebral edge in the developing landscape that followed Year Zero and that we now refer to as post-punk. Magazine’s noisier little brothers, the Buzzcocks going all aggro in the TAG program. Chairs Missing would appear the following year, announcing in its first few seconds of “Practice Makes Perfect” that Wire weren’t a band keen on being fitted with punk’s straitjackets. There are still chopping guitars, still the implicit tone of panic and paranoia, but now there’s space, there’s a bassline evocative of a creeping unease rather than a pummeling one. Further down the record there’s even a song called “I Feel Mysterious Today” that, though still electrically charged, suggests without guile the expanding palette of the band’s sound. 1979 sees the release of 154, considered by many to be their utmost statement and for good reason. From the pointed autopsy of a collapsed romance that opens it (“I Should Have Known Better”), coated in regret, through the pop punk punch of “Two People In A Room” to the spooked atmospherics of “The Other Window,” “A Mutual Friend” and others, Wire’s third album hits every mark we’d hoped they’d hit and more. Plus it contains their most unabashed pop triumph, “Map Ref. 41° N 93°W,” a sort of lost airman’s anthem bedecked with a chorus as singably addictive as any in a year overrun with them, not to mention a melodically distorted guitar that marries – in a dual ceremony – the word ‘disturbed’ to the word ‘pretty,’ ‘concise’ to ‘expansive.’

A breathtaking peak, 154 capped a remarkable three-year ascent that put them in a rarefied echelon that few if any bands could match, then or now. And perhaps it was that very swiftness, the too-quick rise to a point well above the aesthetic treeline (their altitude perhaps a little too refined, as it were – @ 1:45), but shortly thereafter a certain rudderlessness set in, the 80’s seemed to drift through them rather than the other way around. And though it’s sadly true that this was not an uncommon storyline – it was, musically, a tough decade for the sharp and/or clever and/or erudite, a state of affairs recently relived in wake of the rusted Iron Lady’s demise – it was particularly difficult to witness the floundering of Wire, precisely, of course, because they’d reached such heights with such a seemingly effortless impeccability (the fact they were absent almost half the decade speaks more succinctly to their deterioration than any words might hope to). With 154, they’d appeared as infallible as any band could, an impression only magnified by the decades since. Not that there haven’t been moments – A Bell Is A Cup‘s “Kidney Bongos,” the addictive – if light of structure – drone thrash of crowdpleaser “Drill” (an undeniable highlight when I saw them in 1988) – and of course lately the band have reignited with a fury, 2011’s Red Barked Tree on many of our year-end best lists. Still, most of us, while being cognizant, and respectful, of the fact that nostalgia in any form fits neither band nor fan and is in fact anathema, harbor a certain yearn. So when advance word trickled out that their new album would be a collection of songs built out of rudimentary bits and pieces circa 1979/80, works that at most had had the rare live airing but nothing more, it was impossible not to betray one’s excitement. Wire fans the world over gasped in unison. The result? Allow me to sample shamelessly of journalistic cliché: Change Becomes Us does not disappoint.

wire 2013

Straight out of the silence, “Doubles And Trebles” doses up the intrigue. Within a minute we’ve got an ‘ally in exile’ in a spot of mortal bother, ‘unable to relax,’ we’ve got the mentions of ‘cipher’ and ‘code’ and again we’re reminded: no one brings the simmer of paranoia to a low but constant boil better than Wire. What begins with the simple menace of a single chording guitar eventually gives way to that fluid sonic density we forever crave when listening to a Wire album. When, above the buzzsaw wall of sound, singer Colin Newman exclaims ‘resistance is futile,’ it seems at least a double, and possibly treble, entendre.

On second track “Keep Exhaling” the quality one might call ‘the immediacy of Wire’ pulses at you instantly. Bass drum thump, an impatient one-note guitar line racing toward danger, a short burst of, perhaps, a video game’s laser-gun sound effect, all settling into backdrop once Colin’s vocal hits the mix and here’s the thing: more often than not, regardless of context, what menace or emotional havoc the words may be addressing – ‘hypertension’ pops up a few lines down the chart here – the singer’s voice, whether by choice or natural timbre, that slightly quavery soprano, brings a rather leveling softness into play. It is the voice of a man articulately frozen in crisis, doing its very best to remain calm and mostly succeeding. Much is mentioned of the tension that mechanizes this band, the quiet-loud, stop-start dynamic, the push and pull between the primal heartbeat drive and the esoteric, that much-lauded ‘cerebral.’ To this should be added the innately unnerving effect of Colin’s slyly neutral vocal style, anchoring songs the gist of which occupies the shadowier regions of our psyche. Not that it could be any other way. Wire in sum is a deftly handled exploration of inertia. No matter the tempo, be it thrash ‘n’ burn, be it the gauzier textures of “Re-invent Your Second Wheel” or “B/W Silence” on this new record, one is never far from at least the intimation of chaos, its energy underpinned and precisely bottled.

On the pure adrenalin wig-out of “Stealth Of A Stork” or the bust-out sections of “Adore Your Island,” the pink flag plunged anew atop the jagged, angular punk rock ridge, that energy is unapologetically right in your face. But for the most part on this album, there’s a sense of release sublimely withheld, some invisible yoke of restraint operating just behind the curtain. Hence, an elegance reigns, one that underlines this band’s mastery of craft. Yes, these songs germinated in the cauldron of 79/80 and that’s a very exciting premise, but the fact they’re realized here by hands so rich in experience – abetted by the injection of precocious youth via guitarist Matthew Simms – incalculably ups the wow factor.

“Magic Bullet” is, well, exactly that, with its subtly insistent throb of rhythm, its regret-tinged melody and a deceptively simple/complex lyrical hook – ‘out of my depth/over my head’ – that suggests a certain Oxford resident named Yorke may very well have bent his ear Wire-ward on more than one occasion. Late album entry “As We Go,” oblique with pinpoint accuracy, builds on itself in typical Wire fashion before opening up space as if coming upon a sonic savanna, a sense reinforced by the fatalistic refrain ‘we sing and dance as we go’ interspersed with ‘we sing and dance in the Congo’ as the song slowly evaporates over the horizon.

Most lovely, perhaps, is “Love Bends,”  a paean to its titular subject like we’ve never quite heard from this band, Newman enumerating the various burden-easing, crazy-making tendencies of that blessed state, the band shimmering around the words, Robert Grey and Graham Lewis proving as ever that there is no more well-drilled a rhythm section, generous, sparing, brutally concise. That the synth figure reminiscent of “Love Reign O’er Me” rises up phoenix-like at exactly the 1:54 mark is, I’m sure, a coincidence.

There’s hardly a moment on Change Becomes Us that doesn’t thrill like that. Even the record’s least successful – and shortest – track, “Eels Sang,” which, both musically and arrangement-wise clings a bit too close to the template (the mention of Simon Cowell doesn’t help), even that bangs around with enough garagey charm to merit distinction. Though dwarfed by what surrounds it, the song on its own out there in the world would stand at least an eel’s length above most of what’s slung at us these days.

So, yes, an absolute reeling triumph, and for the moment we’re allowed the luxury of marinating in the bath of wonderfully agitated light that is this new Wire album. But as much as it feels like it’s almost a personal gift to fans such as myself that were lucky (read: old) enough to have been electrified by the band’s initial ascent, I’d suggest it’s also wise, necessary even, to keep in mind this album’s title. Enjoy it while it’s here – and holy hell will you enjoy it – and 2013 indeed belongs to Change Becomes Us, but the story shifts in 2014, you know it does, and if you’re at all like me, you can hardly wait.