Wire, ‘Change Becomes Us’ (Pink Flag)
Release Date: March 26, 2013
Label: Pink Flag
Like nearly everything about this long-running musical project (one hesitates to call it a band), the title of Wire’s new album is simultaneously cheeky and flatly informative. Thirty-plus years into an assault on pop conventions, amid multiple sabbaticals and lineup fluctuations, these Class of ’77 standouts have perfected a peculiar logic that alternately captivates and infuriates followers, to the point where it’s anybody’s guess whether the current incarnation featuring touring guitarist Matt Simms is Wire Mark III or IV (or V). And if original guitarist Bruce Gilbert’s 2008 “withdrawal” (to use the outfit’s unique terminology) had seemed an irreparable disruption, such was the nature of things: Drummer Robert Grey had similarly removed himself at the peak of Wire’s electronica flirtation, only to return after his compatriots switched off the drum machines.
Yet Change Becomes Us initially seems like a retreat for so forward-looking a collective, in that it revisits unpublished works from 1979-1980, a band era exemplified by the art-prog debauchery of 154 and a series of harrowing concerts. For individuals so averse to repeating themselves — they once foisted a Wire cover band onto oldies-hungry audiences rather than cover their own “hits” live — resurrecting old material seems like an act of retrenchment, a rock-star cliché. Oh, ye of little faith. Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, and Robert Grey remain ironists at heart, committed to viewing their back pages with skeptical eyes. As process-oriented as Marcel Duchamp, they’ve turned creaky blueprints into jumping-off points for wholly re-imagined pop tunes.
Emphasis on “pop,” please: The real act of provocation here comes in the streamlining of what had been cacophonous material into a solid bag of actual tunes. The gently shimmering indie songcraft of “Re-Invent Your Second Wheel” belies its genesis as a clattering performance piece more Tristan Tzara than verse/verse/chorus. Opener “Doubles & Trebles” kicks off with a riff that’s practically a shrug. “Eels Sang” herks and jerks over asinine rhymes (what Newman once described as “intelligently moronic”). “Adore Your Island” lurches between mock-symphonic grandeur and the speedy hardcore that remains their primary Yankee legacy. And a handful of numbers recall the overlooked compositional mastery of 1988’s A Bell Is a Cup, now reconfigured as lush pop, from brief swoon “Keep Exhaling” and string-enhanced “B/W Silence” through the Britpop of “Love Bends,” transformed from the strident “Piano Tuner” into glossy melodiousness worthy of Blur.
Such hummable craft is by no means a career outlier, despite Wire’s reputation as chilly minimalists, though that not-entirely-deserved distinction was an inevitable result of their devotion to anti-Romantic lyrics. (That’s “Romantic” with a capital R.) But their gnomic tendencies are balanced out by mischievous wit and a slyly subversive method of language in which words float disengaged from musical surroundings, now and again alighting upon striking turns of phrase or imagery, a frankly non-rock’n’roll approach sharing more than surface similarities with Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. To wit: “Such an unwholesome event,” “Resistance is futile,” “You’re the one who should be spared,” “Adorning your bodies with ornament / Protecting your balls with armament,” “Aided by subtle metamorphic shifts.”
That last morsel appears in the six-minute “interlude” and penultimate track “& Much Besides,” a gently swaying chord progression reminiscent of Cluster’s pastoral work abruptly ripped from wordless reverie thanks to Newman surfacing midway through. As befits a group whose loveliest songs have always boasted inscrutable titles (see “Kidney Bingos” and “Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW”), Newman calmly chews over imponderables, musing, “An unmapped past? / Maybe / A chance to reconfigure DNA? / Perhaps,” as if he’s genuinely committed to puzzling the matter over. Commitment is one thing about Wire you can never doubt.