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Wire – Red Barked Tree

on January 18, 2011, 8:00am

London’s essential punk/post-punk outfit, Wire, have been around forever, seemingly. Their first album, Pink Flag, came out 35 years ago, while Chairs Missing, and 154 came out the following two years. Each is considered a standard-bearer of the scene at the time, progressing without losing that bleeding edge. While there haven’t exactly been leaps and bounds in genre or crazy changes in styles, they always manage to keep things fresh, decade after decade. This revitalization is the only thing that keeps the fact that there will never be another Pink Flag from being too awful.

One term typically (and rightfully) attributed to Wire’s brand of rock is ‘cerebral punk’. From the opening of this, their 11th record, the ‘punk’ seems to come more from the lyrics than anywhere else. Over a droning, new wave-y backing track, vocalist Colin Newman delivers lines like “Fuck off out of my face, you take up too much space” and “Take your knife out of my back” with a solemn insistence more than a punk sneer, but there’s no denying the sentiment’s still there. Spacey guitar layers add to the constant feeling of the song. The acoustic guitar and piano (you read right) on songs like “Adapt” are wrinkles, to be sure, though wrinkles that suit this new Wire, especially paired with more dystopic lyrics and shoegaze guitar washes.

On the other hand, “Now Was” is a slinky, punk track at its heart, though one with laid back vocals and careening, spacey guitar effects. The precise, pounding two minutes of “Two Minutes” drives in on aggression and superiority. Newman’s lyrics “You know what, coffee is not a replacement for food or happiness” bring Sonic Youth’s “Mildred Pierce” (sans freakout) to mind with radio-scratched vocal samples in the background. Despite the added textures, these are what one might expect from a legendary punk band now grown into something even wiser than their first albums.

Early on the record, “Clay” feels like familiar territory for the band, with its bouncy bass line and clacking drums, but it’s significantly less dim. It sounds like the song was recorded in the atrium of a spaceship rather than a punk club. The vocals throughout the album are less shouted than intoned. The rhythms at their fastest are insistent rather than manic. Whether it’s an age change (they’re in their 50’s or 60’s now, after all) or a changed interest is hard to say, but it has its high and low points. The spacey twinges of “Bad Worn Thing” seem too lax, too empty, while the shoegazey, filtered vocals and driving, thunderous drums on “Moreover” more than allow for the twinkling electronic sounds to commingle in the background.

The bouncy, almost Pixies-like surf punk of “A Flat Tent” and “Smash” form the climactic point of the album, after which two slower, spaced tracks linger out into nothingness. The timpani rolls and fuzzed-out guitar stabs of “Down to This” is a creep-fest, plenty of talk of running scared and not knowing exactly what’s going on. The title track closes things with acoustic thrumming, snap-pop electric bass, reverbed piano, and lyrics focusing on the search “to find the healing red barked trees”. It’s an epic track, clocking in at over five minutes long, one being slightly prog in its mythological bent.

This is in many ways what you’d expect from a new Wire album. It has so many pieces of their signature sound; it has the reinvention, the added textures, and ideas. But to expect anything from Wire is tough. To hope anything to come out of their camp will be like anything else is a tough thing to hope for. In the end, you have to sit back and wait it out, leave the output to their terms.

The precise, pounding two minutes of “Two Minutes” drives
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