I’m counting the grains and they’re so sharp: the best of Wire

Well, I figured Graham Lewis and Colin Newman deserved a snotty reappraisal. My piece on Wire’s 154 triggered a three-week period of hate (e)mail when such things existed. Intended as provocation, the essay pretends the rest of Wire’s career didn’t exist, and it’s only then that the Graham Lewis show pieces I hated make sense. If anything, the recordings they’ve released since 2000 honor their commitment to a paradox that no other band, let alone punk band, has ever mastered: histrionic austerity.

——————
Wire
154
9/16/2006

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.

———-

In this list I’ve included tracks from every Wire period ending with 2013’s ultra-competent and too aptly named Change Becomes Us and Colin Newman’s first solo album. For Wire, their career was all in the art of stopping, then restarting. Anti-nostalgia will consume itself. If the song at the top of the list is startling, I owe it to them. I can think of few bands using English who’ve written as primal, mysterious, and devastating as “Kidney Bingos.” In 1995’s epochal SPIN Alternative Record Guide, Eric Weisbard mused that to prefer The A-List, compiling Mach II Wire’s experiments with echo and Depeche Mode synths, you’d have to be as coldly pure as Wire themselves. Well.

1. Kidney Bingos
2. Ex-Lion Tamer
3. Map Ref. 41°N 93°W
4. Practice Makes Perfect
5. Lowdown
6. Mannequin
7. I Am the Fly
8. 12 X U
9. The 15th
10. French Film Blurred
11. Pink Flag
12. I Don’t Understand
13. Ahead
14. On Returning
15. A Series of Snakes
16. Outdoor Miner
17. Strange
18. Sand in My Joints
19. Drill
20. Bad Worn Thing
21. Another the Letter
22. One of Us
23. Reuters
24. In the Art of Stopping
25. Eardrum Buzz (Single Mix)
26. Two Minutes
27. As We Go
28. I’ve Waited Ages
29. Ambitious
30. Better Late Than Never

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