As UK’s original post punk pioneers are about to enter their fifth decade they are still writing with a natural worn in a style that still has the flair of their first albums, if not quite the immediacy. Despite many years of innovations and countless influence Wire’s best songs are still those that feature uncomplicated riffs, solid, if angular melodies and strong powerful lyrics that question modern day living and progress.
Can you believe it? 2017 will be the 40th anniversary of the release of Wire’s highly influential landmark debut Pink Flag. This was an album that flew in the face of the big studios and shunned the temptation to make lavish productions, instead of combining of harsh minimalism, fragmented hooks and twisting lyrics that swirled around the subject matter without ever truly landing on the point. Art-school ambiguity mixed with plenty of plenty of pseudo-cockney ‘Oi’ in the attitude, to add authenticity and punk cred (These days, ‘Punk’ has become a euphemism for DIY production – albeit with an arsenal of computers and tech equipment that no punk rocker in the 70’s could ever hope to squeeze into their squalid bedsit). That approach became the band’s trademark, a model for the years to come. Not that it was easy. There have been many stops and starts; reformations; rebirths and changes of course. Even their more recent material, which is considered more ‘straightforward’ still is brain-taxing. They’re a tough group to pin down. Which is what makes them all the more fun.
As music goes, Silver/Lead, their 16th album to date, is as straightforward as it gets. Despite innovations of our age, there’s no auto cue, synths, samples or overdubs. Perfect hooks, simple riff-driven numbers with clear, clean production – although the murky vocals of earlier works are, understandably, gone now. That was a ‘youth’ thing and doesn’t really wash today but the challenging lyrics and the implied darkness behind some of these tunes still imply darkness. Every song is like a streamlined airliner, cutting through the sky in a perfect flight path piloted by smooth, subdued vocals (mainly from Colin Newman, with the rest from Graham Lewis).
As always, Lewis’ lyrics remain a puzzle. They intentionally border between abstract and vague. So much so that they are almost meaningless but there is one line that could give a clue about this album: “The path that is progress is under repair.” To me that seems like a change in expectations. We look for silver but often find a lead. The lead weight that drags you down. Our optimism turns to sour disappointment. This is why we have to fix ourselves.
If there’s a theme or common thread on here, it seems it’s through the voice of a narrator whose intent on moving forward. Yet they’re unsure how to do this. There are many references to roads, boats and rivers throughout this album – constant indicators of motion and direction. The more I listen the more I hear the voice of a man who’s making a futile attempt to escape himself. “My reasons for living were under review…Standing on the road, where would I go to?” (A Short Elevated Period).
There’s a tension between moving on and dwelling on the past comes during the pep talk style of Diamonds in Cups: “The course of creation is often quite strange/Keep your mind open, be willing to change”. Put another way, you can always gain energy from uncertainty because a lack of finality opens the door for opportunity.
On the oh-so-simple-hook laden This Time you get the time honoured reassurance: “This time it’s going to be better. This time I’m gonna be strong”. My first guess is that he’s talking about relationships but then it could be anything. It all starts with an open-ended statement: “Some folks believe in magic/ Does voodoohoodoo do it for you?/ Some folks claim they know all the answers/ And for a price, they’ll share them with you” There are later clues: “Some folks have the gift for living/ Others make a living hell/ Some folks take love as a given/ And can’t stop falling under its spell.” But somehow I’m not convinced. ‘Love’ in this case has been reduced to a personality or an ‘thing’. But then what?
More questions come on Alibi: “Have you got a leg to stand on?/ Have you got a stick to call your own?/ Have you got a peg to hang on?/ Have you a hook to weight and bait?/ Have you got a dread of nylon?/ Are you a man-made island?/ Have you got a head of pylons?/ Have you got the buzz to live?/ Have you got an alibi?” An alibi for what? It isn’t said. Not clearly. Perhaps this is interchangeable. It’ll fit any situation. A song for all seasons.
Ambiguity is all very well but sometimes they’re just too clever. Sleep on the Wing is a great song. There’s a cool, breezy melody but the lyrics are just so abstract. I can only guess this is a comment about leaving a relationship on the other side of the world. Flying home to safety. But I could be wrong: “Ration your thinking to what is good for me/ Partition a sprinkling of what is good for you/ Compress the essence of what is inside your view/ Acknowledge the presence and fashion a frame/ Upward and inward, outward and forward/ Sleep on the wing, fly through the night/ Fell off the page in the right-hand corner/ The morning after you told me Ex-Pat was dead? One of the best – a top spot runner/ Half a second faster, she was pole on the grid!”
As Wire’s turns 40, they still sound natural and their music, at least, is an easy listen. Their lyrics, not so much. There’s nothing revolutionary on this album but then at their age is that possible? Core members Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, and Robert Grey are all in their 60s. They’ll not be jumping around on stage declaring the abolition of the monarchy any day soon. However, that’s also not to say that this is just more banality on the pile. It’s true that they’ve been cranking out material for nearly half a century. They become more beguiling in their dotage. They want to taunt us instead of spit in our face. They tease us intellectually, procrastinating us with ambiguity.