The first three Wire albums—Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154—make up a masterpiece trilogy of art-punk/experimental pop. Hailing from England, the original lineup of Colin Newman (vocals, guitar), Graham Lewis (bass, vocals), Bruce Gilbert (guitar), and Robert Gotobed (drums) set the post-punk bar, influencing everyone from the Cure to Sonic Youth.
My post-154 Wire timeline was vaguely aware that the band had re-formed in the late 1980s and made music that people (stoned girlfriends, snobby ex-boyfriends, know-it-all uncles, amused record-store clerks, et al.) shrugged off as being "pretty bad." I assumed they'd fallen like an underground Weezer parable. The band refused to play their older albums, instead hiring a Wire cover band—the Ex-Lion Tamers—to open their sets. But SHIT, did everyone else realize that there were 11 full-length albums after 154 (not EVEN counting the massive amounts of singles, EPs, and other collections) spanning the late 1980s to the early 1990s before starting back up again in the early 2000s?
Last month, I saw that Wire released a self-titled album and were touring. So I tackled this later portion of their discography. Here's my synopsis. Buckle up.
The Ideal Copy (1987): On the first full-length album post-154 hiatus (1980–1985), Wire are getting their '80s on. Newman's unmistakable voice is the only thing that relates this shimmering electro-pop to late-'70s Wire, except for tracks like "Ambitious" where Lewis sounds like a melodramatic Bowie. There are some experimental sound bits floating around, but at the end of the day, the shadowy synth and saucy drum machine are pretty New Order. The version I'm listening to is the reissue, which means it contains the "bonus" tracks from their 1986 EP Snakedrill.
A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck (1988): More of the refined, heavily-eye-shadowed sound. I could ride an escalator to the layers of synth and mid-tempo shrugging. The landscape is breezy '80s-goth-lite with non sequitur lyrics. "Kidney Bingos" stands out as a wistfully sweet summer song. I'd like the slightly faster "Come Back in Two Halves" if the gentle overdubbed guitars hadn't already lulled me to sleep.
It's Beginning to and Back Again (IBTABA) (1989): Fuck. We're still in a John Hughes movie. "German Shepherds" is satisfying in a moody way, but two songs later, they are giving tinny hiphop a shot on "Illuminated." NO. This album is a reconstruction of live recordings mushed into a stern dance computer. "Over Theirs" is an awful song that I only kind of like because it's SO odd.
Manscape (1990): I can't even with this title. And the first song is called "Life in the Manscape"—do tell! "Unfamiliar letters/Anagram situations/Silence please!/Poets at work." Slipping weird lyrics over brainless, subdued dance junk? I'm not falling for it. My boredom turns to claustrophobia. Tell the drum machine to change it up a bit, PLEASE. In the immortal words of James Hetfield, "It sounds stock to my ears."
The Drill (1991): More Wire covering Wire. Drill has been citied as being an early precursor to minimal techno. According to Wire nerd Wilson Neate (author of Read & Burn: A Book About Wire, and Wire's Pink Flag 33 1/3), the monotonous, manufactured beat is called "dugga." There's even a compilation album of other people covering this cover called Dugga Dugga Dugga. The sheer ridiculousness of it all is bringing Wire back into my good graces. "I want to drill you. (I want to drill. You.)"
The First Letter (1991): This is credited to Wir instead of Wire. They changed their name after drummer Robert Gotobed left. It's one hell of an uneven album—some parts are flat, like we're still living in a Patrick Nagel print; others are completely strange soundscapes. As a whole, I'd describe it as a cup of half-carbonated pastel dance soda with a couple black patent-leather Krazy Straws in it.
Send (2003): The dudes are back from another breather. This release contains tracks from Read & Burn 1 and 2 EPs (2002), plus four new tracks. (Sigh.) BUT HEY! Real guitars! Tense buzzing and fuzzing! Sneering vocals! It's mostly okay rock 'n' roll. Comparatively, I'm so relieved, I could cry.
Object 47 (2008): At this point, if you add the prior full-lengths, singles, EPs, and compilations, this is the 47th item in the band's discography! It's more inviting, outward-facing rock with distortion and bass lines I want to wrap around me like a friendly snake. "Circumspect" is brooding soft rock, and "Perspex Icon" has me bobbing my head around, feeling like someone finally opened the window in the suffocating synth closet.
Red Barked Tree (2010): Melodic and sweet with more depth, the guitars crisply jangle and the vocals possess a clean and catchy sincerity. "Two Minutes" gets Fall-esque with tin-can-talk/shout vocals, "Smash" is catchy and buzzing, and my favorite on the album, "A Flat Tent" starts with handclaps and—dare I say—sorta sounds like a caustically upbeat Ramones/Wire puree.
Change Becomes Us (2013): No one wants their favorite band to keep making the same albums (unless you're the aforementioned Ramones, who get a rock 'n' roll high school hall pass), but Change reaches back to the melodic, frazzled post-punk of Wire's earliest albums. Yet it's still innovative with blobs of watery guitars, fancy production, and clean synth intermissions between the more punk-leaning jams. There's a face slap of arena rock, too.
Wire (2015): We made it! I like this album. I feel like both Wire and I have really earned this moment, you know? But the first song is called "Blogging," and its lyrics bug me. The technology argument seemed dated when it began—from the people who refuse to look up from their smartphones, to the people who call people out about their smartphones, to the very word SMARTPHONE.
Anyhoo, in our current era where a lot of angsty art-punk sounds like old Wire, Wire would get tsk-tsked for sounding like old Wire, so they're doing the best that Wire can do in this situation. AND THESE ARE ALL NEW SONGS! The second song, "Shifting," has Newman's voice tuneful and sweet. "Burning Bridges" is sunny and dazed, "In Manchester" brings up the energy a few tracks before the foreboding "Sleep-Walking," and "Joust & Jostle" quickens with a sort of Billy Idol urgency in its pants. The penultimate "Octopus" snapped me back to attention with vaguely industrial noise injections and weird and watery vocal distortion. It's as catchy as anything on Chairs Missing.
I'm not in a hurry to revisit most of their work, but I respect Wire's dedication to not giving a fuck. It takes true weirdos to enthrall the art punks before dancing off to the beat of their own drum machine, refusing to cannibalize their most respected work.
Wire are dead, long live Wire!