Wire have never had the wider credit they’ve deserved. Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154, released a year apart from each other during 1977-1979, are three of the best post-punk albums of the period: they have a confident swagger, are occasionally brimming with angular tension and menace yet, more often than not, full of humour (I Am The Fly) and built around sophisticated and brilliantly crafted melodies.
Another The Letter, from Chairs Missing, only lasts just over a minute – at this point, Wire usually opted for short over going long – yet demands so many repeated listens because it’s impossible to comprehend its frenetic energy straight away: it’s evidence to what can be achieved within a small space of time. Why have a four minute song when everything can be condensed into a minute and demand repeated attention?
Wire’s career can be divided into three sections: their post-punk period, their ’80-’90s period and their return back in 2003. Their releases during the 1980s and ’90s weren’t, perhaps somewhat unfairly, anywhere near as critically successful, yet still displayed the band’s willingness to shift into new genres such as nine-minute long experimental synthpop and IDM. There was also some unrest, with drummer Robert ‘Gotobed’ Grey leaving and the others carrying on as Wire and releasing The First Letter on Mute, which continued the dance theme but brought hints of industrial.
However, this third period, without guitarist Bruce Gilbert but with Grey now back in, has demonstrated a youthful, almost carefree exuberance; 2003’s Send verged on heavy metal with dabs of Krautrock, 2008’s Object 47 took them back more towards their post-punk roots and 2011’s Red Barked Tree sounded like a contemporary indie record, although that’s by no means meant in a derogatory sense: if anything they did it better and with more gusto and acclaim than bands half their age.
This has been continued with Change Becomes Us, the band’s 12th studio release, albeit with an aged backstory, with front man Colin Newman recently stumbling across the ‘blueprints’ to the album’s content – from bits of paper to old tapes, some of which were hidden in his shed – written after the release of the post-punk ‘trilogy’.
In fact, the essence of Pink Flag et al comes through from the off, with album opener Doubles And Trebles carrying that characteristic, swaggering bass-driven threat bassist/lyricist Graham Lewis produces so well, especially when coupled with Newman’s shrills of “resistance is futile!” Yet it’s perhaps thanks to the impeccably clean production and the sharp, cutting strums of electro-acoustic guitar that the menace is intensified further; indeed, this is the modern indie side of Wire coming through to good effect.
Some trepidation does emerge when Adore Your Island begins, with its opening rather conventional and tepid. Yet it’s all done for effect, with it leaping furiously into a din of guitars and bass akin to 154’s Two People In A Room, before a cycle of synth loops fade in. Meanwhile, the short and sharp Keep Exhaling and Stealth Of A Stork achieve what Another The Letter did in packing in minutes worth of intensity inside the space of a minute or so; they may not have the creative edge and melodic complexities of older Wire, but they still demand the same repeated listens. The raw, hardcore punk-like energy exhibited in Stealth Of A Stork, with Newman’s cries of “change!” delivering satisfying key changes, particularly stands out.
B/W Silence is a rather sedate and emotional offering, with dreamy synth peering through and electroacoustic guitar returning, this time taking a more dominant presence. Yet the lyrics (“…mourning the passing of a romance in black and white silence”) are, as far as Wire are concerned, quite poignant. While focussing on a failed relationship, the lyrics may also offer an insight into the band’s pessimism at the time the ‘blueprints’ were conceived, especially as they arrived around the time of the band’s first hiatus. Nevertheless, this introspection is brief, with the familiar menace returning in Time Log Fog, this time on another, more ominous level: repetitive, metronomic clanging loops, the same droning bass rhythms and lack of tempo culminate to make this an intense listen.
Eels Sang does expose the danger of Wire’s modern sound, with the production almost too clean – being a little rough around the edges is no bad thing, as they should be able to attest to. Nevertheless, the post-punk swagger comes storming through, with Grey’s minimal and precise drumming quintessential post-punk. Album closer Attractive Space, with its trademark oblique Wire lyrics (“Consequences are mainly overrated…shapen the weapons of your trade”), finishes with thrashing guitars and looping, modulated vocals – a pleasing ending.
Change Becomes Us is, in some ways, the representative Wire record, bringing together the band’s three periods into one very neat release. It doesn’t have the invention of the post-punk releases – that would be expecting far too much – but it shows that Wire are still, five decades in, showing how it should be done: in parts, it’s just as absorbing as anything they’ve released.