When I first heard the announcement of a new Wire record, I spun everything from Change Becomes Us through to Nocturnal Koreans on a traffic-heavy, black and snowy drive back home. The setting couldn’t be more fitting. Change Becomes Us still holds up as a very good – sometimes great – Wire record, which makes sense when you consider that a handful of it are re-works of older songs. By contrast, their self-titled and slightly experimental EP Nocturnal Koreans (marketed as a “mini-LP”, whatever that meant) were collections of mild tunes and minimal atmosphere: completely forgettable for the most part. I was hoping Silver/Lead would be more like the former, a chance to praise the band as the hardest-working and best longest-lasting post-punk outfit. Who else? The Fall? Maybe if more of their albums were like Our Future Your Clutter.
Yet, despite what a lot of the critics have said, Silver/Lead contentedly just continues in the latter two’s path, and I would wager a guess that none of people who praise this will end up caring about it a year after the fact. When you find yourself praising Graham Lewis’ purposefully obtuse lyrics as poetry, or Colin Newman‘s thin voice as melodic genius, then you know you’re reaching.
Take, for example the first two songs. True, opener “Playing Harp for the Fishes” does establish a tangible atmosphere with the effective echo on the guitar chords, but it’s not like the song has any real tune, or more crucially, heft to it. By the time the coda rolls around, it’s not a release — it’s just a coda. And with the opening unease, I can’t help but compare to “Anxiety” from Preoccupations’ sophomore album last year (a great record that should’ve gotten more attention but didn’t because it was overshadowed by the politics of the band’s name change). After the introduction on “Anxiety,” everything — the pummeling rhythm, the glacial textures, the unsettling hooks — snapped into place at once. Here, it’s mostly doled out. By contrast, the pre-released “Short Elevated Period” does have some momentum to it (mostly by way of tempo), but it turns out that it’s misrepresentative: most of what follows seems content (there’s that word again) to operate in mid-tempo.
They do work up some magic every now and then: the razor-sharp guitar riff of “Diamonds in Cups”, practically glam rock-ish in its strut; the squeezed “Ooh, darling” hook of “Forever & a Day”; the night-time atmosphere of “Sleep on the Wing” (which sounds remarkably like something from an xx album). But a lot of these elements are the defining aspects of those songs, and everything else about the song operates on merely a functional level: I can’t recall a thing about “This Time” other than the fact that it reminds me of “I Am the Fly”; closer “Silver/Lead” ain’t much outside of its minimal beat. That said, “Brio” manages to work itself up to something and “An Alibi” has a nice rumble.
Maybe that was all a bit harsh. A lot of the reviews mention the age: Wire’s debut soon to celebrate its fortieth year anniversary; the key members all 60. And to be clear, I don’t expect another Pink Flag from these guys — that was an album for a specific time and specific place. If punk rock rejected the advances of progressive rock by stripping away everything to its core, somehow, Pink Flag found a way to strip away even more. But again, listening to this over and over, I kept longing for some of the charging chugs and physical power of Change Becomes Us (“YOU’RE THE ONE WHO SHOULD BE SPARED!”) instead of this resignation.