Eponymous albums aren't for amateurs, and Wire's 13th chunk of full-length steel proves it.
Self-titled albums carry a lot of unseen weight. For young bands, naming your debut after yourself is a bold announcement of your arrival. For veteran rock bands, an eponymous album is often interpreted as a reconsolidation of their strengths after they've "gone astray", returning with a newfound sense of purpose after going "back to their roots". Then you have bands like Wire who were never really fond of their roots, even from the very start. As early as 1976, when punk rockers were using their newfound sound to counteract the then-current trends of popular music, Wire preferred to clash against the punk movement itself. It was one of those great Fighting Fire with Fire moments in music when this English "punk" band would do anything but cater to the people who paid to hear them. They would play too fast, too slow, too loud, too soft, not play at all sometimes -- basically they were either too punk or not punk enough for late '70s England, a crime punishable by way of an airborne glass bottle. And so, 38 years after their iconic debut Pink Flag, Wire give us a self-titled album with typically cryptic cover art. What do we take away from this? Probably something along the lines of, "Whatever, we're Wire."
This is a band that has often gone out of its way to show how disinterested they are in their own past. A byproduct of this is a sense of the present that seems to stretch and stretch some more. No matter how they've changed the blueprints, the musical outcome of Wire's recording career has been uncharacteristically consistent over the past eight years. It certainly wasn't for lack of trying. They invited Paige Hamilton of Helmet to give squalls of feedback on Object 47, they hired guitarist Margaret Fiedler McGinnis to join them on the road in promoting said album, and they snagged Matthew Simms from It Hugs Back to help resurrect and finish a fat stack of forgotten songs from the late '70s/early '80s, resulting in 2013's Change Becomes Us. Despite these variables, Wire have clung tightly to the sound they found after founding member Bruce Gilbert's departure. WIRE finds them clinging tighter than ever, even with Simms now fully integrated into the writing process. WIRE, is sleek, tuneful, agreeable, and steadily sways from standard fare to blossoming brilliance and back again several times over.
The two songs the band chose to leak online prior to the album's release are examples of the standard fare. "Joust & Jostle" and "Split Your Ends" are the living, breathing result of what singer/guitarist Colin Newman once professed as "tunes with zoom". Zoom, they do. Between these two songs and other tracks like "High", "Blogging", and "Octopus", zoom appears to be Wire's default mode these days. Thankfully, Newman's mixing job brings out whatever minutiae he and Simms, bassist Graham Lewis, and drummer Robert Grey conjure up in the studio. The see-sawing bass notes of "High", the ornately subtle guitars of "In Manchester", and the sustained glissandos of "Burning Bridges" all have a chance to shine through if you spend enough time with WIRE. The close mutters and distant shouts lying below the surface of "Sleep-Walking"'s mix are certainly distraction enough from the song's seven-minute drone from the deep (remember that far out live version of "Sixth Sense"?).
And as much of a mind-bend as this may be for some, Wire's sense of humor is a key part of its existence. Even Lewis recently reminded us all that "with Wire there's a peculiarity, a contrariness and that can be funny." No one can ever accuse them of going to great lengths to be carefree, but WIRE finds them not trying to beat it back either. There's really no other way to explain that the three wise men used Google maps to find the Christ Child on "Blogging". The ever-frenetic "In Manchester" ostensibly has nothing to do with the city itself. Those two words just happened to be on Graham Lewis's lyric sheet and Colin Newman dragged them into the spotlight by building a chorus around it. A lyric like "the narrowest vision often has the widest appeal" can't be 100% cynical when coming from Wire. And what kind of sociopath declares they "started burning bridges when I gave up counting sheep"? Not ha-ha funny, but absurd funny. Remember, these were the guys who thought that releasing Document & Eyewitness twice would be a good idea.
Roughly a third of WIRE's running time goes to "Sleep-Walking" and "Harpooned" each, two songs that lay down atmosphere so heavy that it really has no intention of watching you lift your way out of it. The ominous pounds from Grey's kit and narcoleptic haze help "Sleep-Walking" sound like its title. Speaking of which, "Harpooned" is the skin-piercing punishment that awaits you at the end of the album. "I'm worried, I'm worried / There's cause for concern," Newman calmly calls out in the thick of a sandstorm where heavily distorted guitars are the only guiding light. It's a fittingly uncompromising end to an album that's so all-over-the-place to begin with. WIRE is both catchy and not. It's serious and humorous. It's both concise and drawn-out. It's a stubborn act from a band that stopped having anything to prove decades ago, and it has their stamp all over it. From the very first bar to the final fade, WIRE can't be mistaken for anybody else. That alone makes it worth checking out, with more cool tunes as your bonus.