On their 16th album, Wire sound more like themselves than ever, yet refuse to become complacent.
Two simultaneous and contradictory reactions accompany news of a new Wire album. You know exactly what to expect, and yet you have no idea what to expect. Over their 40-year career, the British post-punk group has developed and honed an unmistakable sound. But that sound has embodied many forms, templates, and ideas over the years.
They have gone from razor-sharp, whiplash punk to machine-aided experimentalism to shimmering, immaculate indie pop -- often within the same album. Wire have released an album comprised solely of various interpretations of the same song (The Drill, 1991) and an album of studio compositions based on decades-old live sketches (Change Becomes Us, 2013). People who said Wire’s mid-‘80s word sounded like New Order had things the wrong way around. Wire have never sounded like anything but them.
At first, Silver/Lead may feel too much like Wire. As ever, the sonic palette is built around the interplay between sinewy and crystalline treated guitars and a stark, uncompromisingly rigid rhythm section. Colin Newman’s wry, still-punky delivery and Graham Lewis’ opaque lyrics remain touchstones, with Lewis taking on the occasional vocal as usual. This is the band’s most musically homogeneous album since A Bell Is a Cup (1988). To call it relaxed would be misleading, because there is, as ever, an unmistakable tension to the band, but maybe comfortable would be more accurate. Comfortable in their own skin and comfortably uncomfortable with the harrowing world outside.
Opening track “Playing Harp for the Fishes” (a Wire-esque title if ever there was one) begins with a single electronic tone which grows into spectral hum until it’s bolstered by guitar chords and Robert Grey’s lockstep midtempo groove. “I was hoping for Heaven / I’d settle for Hell,” Lewis confesses resignedly but not without a smirk. Whether he invokes the two extremes literally or as broad symbols is impossible to discern. It’s the kind of wordplay that has made Wire consistently intriguing, and unsettling.
There is one uptempo track. The roaring pop/punk of “Short Elevated Period” is sufficient evidence of how Wire’s age (the three core members are all in their 6os) has not dulled their appreciation for the power of simplicity. But you still get the impression Wire needed to get it out of their system so they could let the rest of Silver/Lead cast its midtempo spell.
The songs are connected by not just the tempos but also the humming and washes of sound introduced on “Playing Harp for the Fishes”. The dull "An Alibi" excepted, what’s impressive about Silver/Lead is how much the band can accomplish within what at first sounds like a limiting context. “Diamonds in Cups” alternates lively guitar interplay with ominous synth chords, while “Sonic Lens” and “Brio” are taut post-punk meditations. “This Time” is a bluesy commentary on a society starved for answers. “Some folks have the gift for living / Others make a living hell,” Lewis states. It’s another reflection of the duality suggested by the album’s title. A shrinking world made possible by technology is also a volatile world, one that glistens and tarnishes in equal measure.
It says something about the state of Wire that Silver/Lead closes with an air of peaceful resignation. The title track lumbers with a meditative quality, but not before the stunning “Sleep on the Wing”. With its minor key synths and airy, almost jazzy chorus, it is quite possibly the most unabashedly beautiful song Wire have recorded yet. “Upward and inwards / Outwards and forward,” Newman sings. It could be a mission statement for a band that, 40 years on, is still reaching and connecting.