Wire - 154
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Songs are not installations. When the methodology of the visual arts intersects with musical discourse, mind the quaking of your knees: it’s fear, not a sudden drop in temperature. Despite the efforts of primitivists, the innovations of punk were spearheaded by art-school graduates, or art-school wannabes. The best used their training as illustrative decoupage; think of the Polaroid collage on the cover of Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food, which mirrored the kooky Northeastern distance between the band and its subjects. The distance was playful instead of forbidding (at least initially).
The case of Wire is fascinating, for here was a band whose evolution to post-punk dovetailed with its increasing skill at plumbing the depths of forbidding playfulness. Then again, 1977’s Pink Flag wasn’t designed to make you giggle; its austerity is downright Calvinist. Every time songwriters Colin Newman and Graham Lewis attempted portraiture they said the hell with it and ripped the urinals out of the studio bathrooms instead, exhibiting them under cold halogen lamps. The likes of “French Film Blurred” and “I Feel Mysterious Today” from 1978’s Chairs Missing suggest that band members had taken turns pissing in said urinal; and “Mercy” was like getting fucked by giggling troglodytes in a state park bathroom stall. Fortunately, Newman’s vocals were as fetching as usual; his talent for winsome melodies obviated the histrionic nonsense which was Lewis’ (and, to a lesser extent, guitarist Bruce Gilbert’s) specialty.
For 154, Wire met its goal of replacing the “Mannequin”s and “Outdoor Miner”s with eight or nine variants on “Mercy.” Well, that isn’t quite right: imagine creamier, designer “Mercy”s—imagine Tom Cruise as a serial rapist. All manner of ghostly filigrees thicken Wire’s sound; producer Mike Thorne foregrounds synthesizers and Lewis’ Cesar Romero-esque rictus-grinning. As art-rock’s summit, 154 is a repository of situations, gestures, and theses, Cubist in design and effect; its songs are at once tentative and defined. Take “The Other Window”: as a production and performance nothing in 1979 sounded like it; as a song it’s Grand Guignol, which is probably the point. I can hardly call an album this rich a failure, but one with demands this explicit and results so disproportionate thrives only in memory, not as experience. In essence, 154 is not entertaining. Plenty of its songs are awful, or worse.
F.O. Matthiessen defined decadent art as a creation in which the part overwhelms the whole. Formidable formalism of 154’s ilk requires a listener to isolate the striking bits for their own sake, as assembling these bits would reveal a rather sophomoric conception of drama. To compensate for the abstraction blurring the lyrics, Wire’s arrangements turn elephantine. Graham Lewis, alas, is the biggest culprit. His vocals turn lyrics into camp, while his bandmates make faces behind his back. The laughable “I Should Have Known Better” offers treated sheet-metal guitar that’s actually less abrasive than Lewis intoning verses like “Valuing the vengeance which you treasure / I've redefined the meaning of vendetta” in a portentous basso. A cor anglais bleats mournfully in “A Blessed State”; “Once is Enough” is a minor-key Queen song with Brechtian overtones. If you love “Mercy,” then “A Touching Display” is just for you. Tune out Lewis’ dry heaves and bask in the first and final thirds, both of which do splendid jobs of sustaining a mood of prickly drift that many a Goth band would note.
Wire didn’t remember until the late eighties that attractive opacity can have hummable melodies, and that you needn’t get defensive about imitating Pink Flag’s virtues. “Kidney Bingos,” the loveliest song Wire will ever write, depends on three chords, doggerel, and a harmonic fadeout by Newman and Lewis that’s chilling enough to wet the eyes. Its simplicity puts most of 154’s attenuation to shame. Thank goodness someone introduced Newman to cartography and Elizabeth Bishop when it was time to record “Map Ref 41N 93W”—an enthused chorus (everybody sing: “Interrupting my train of thought lines / Of longitude, latitude”) and three or four guitars flying through the air like the points of a compass. Even better is “The 15th,” as much a puzzle as “A Blessed State,” but its dreamy melodies assuring us that confusion is sex; and, again, what a fade! The underrated rhythm section (New Order’s Stephen Morris was Keith Moon compared to Robert Gotobed’s delightfully monochromatic one-two) transforms the volatile band into a thing of force and verve on “Two People in a Room.”
So: three good songs, lots of Kabuki. If I didn’t get the sense that Wire were using these histrionics to camouflage their own inability to concretize their observations, I would value 154 as an achievement as impressive as Chairs Missing and Pink Flag. Not until The Ideal Copy did Wire rethink the processes by which they reconfigured their experimentations in ambiguity with the rhythmic simplicity of their early work—never was there a band more slatternly with sequencers, to pleasing effect. By then, of course, Goth had been invented—it was partly Wire’s fault—and Lewis suddenly had the proper context for his Method acting (outpaced perhaps by Wayne Hussey and Peter Murphy). Gotobed lost the competition to a drum machine. Gilbert’s guitar cowered behind synthesizers. Newman, with admirable pluck, reminded us that there was more Bertolt Brecht in Paul McCartney than even the most addled 1977-era Wire theorem could envision.