Perhaps we’ve been taking them for granted all this time. Maybe Wire’s first few albums were just so good that they made it impossible for us to appreciate the often terrific material they’ve released sporadically during the subsequent decades. They could have just slunk away in the dead of night, leaving us with 1977-79, and their place in history would have been safe and sound. But Wire were always, at least in part, about contrariness. They were crisp and clean and rigidly experimental in an era when punk was more than often not any of those things. And so in 2011, Wire is here to personally remind us not only that they used to be great, but that they’re still capable of great things.
If your favorite Wire music is the jagged quick-snap guitar of their classic debut album, Pink Flag, “Now Was” and the appropriately-titled “Two Minutes” should be right up your alley. Both songs depart as suddenly as they arrive, with the latter delving into drone rock territory with a terrifically twisted spoken-word vocal line. Fans of the band’s forays into contemplative dream-pop should be thrilled with “Adapt” and “Down to This,” each awash in the gentle sway of a feeling you may have long forgotten, building toward something that may never come again.
At times, Red Barked Tree doesn’t feel like it was even recorded in the 21st century, the whiff of a dog-eared copy of the Trouser Press Record Guide faint in its guitars and grooves. Even Colin Newman’s snotty yelp echoes from across the divide of decades, refusing to be softened by age or experience. But because early Wire sounds positively contemporary and necessary in the modern age, the clear line between then and now makes perfect sense. Even when you might want to be embarrassed by earnestly rendered lines like “The absolute of vodka kings” (“Bad Worn Thing”) or the clumsy f-bombs scattered throughout pockets of the entire set, the sound is so clearly Wire, it’s easy to give them a pass.
Selecting a standout track is no easy feat when there’s so much to sink one’s teeth into. “Smash” is a swirling cloud of prickly guitar noise and perfect pop melody, while album opener “Please Take” is so fraught with purpose in its delivery, you may find yourself wondering what it must be like to have all that anger and disappointment focused on you. Over 11 tracks of fantastically unapproachable guitars and vocals, of deceivingly simple rhythms and unswerving purpose, Wire sound perfectly comfortable in their own skin and sense of history on Red Barked Tree.