The sound was often so inviting that it seemed Wire were easing comfortably into middle age.
By Brett Milano
You know that old legend about the six blind men who put their hands on different parts of an elephant, each coming away with a different picture of the whole creature? The long-running English band Wire is like that. Anyone who hears just one album or sees a particular tour will get a different picture of what type of band this is.
During their original 1977-1980 tenure, they progressed within three albums from the spiky art-punk on Pink Flag to the surreal, cinematic 154, then bowed out with a confrontational performance of barely-even-written songs (captured for noisy posterity on the just-reissued album Document & Eyewitness). The original quartet reunited (for the second time) in 2000, their first reunion material (on the three EP’s Read & Burn and the album Send) was purposely brutal, punk with accusatory words and harsh electronic beats. The members of Mission of Burma were famously present at one of those shows, which convinced them that reunions could be worth doing after all.
But the current version of Wire is, more or less, a pop group; though an unconventional one. The first time they fully explored pop was on the 1987 album A Bell Is a Cup…Until It is Struck—my favorite Wire album, though seemingly a love-or-hate one among fans. With that album they pulled off a balancing act: The soaring tunes and lush arrangements are perfectly friendly, yet the lyrics are almost completely non-sequitors (or at least, obscure references that few besides the songwriters would ever get); thus subverting the whole concept of pop as something direct and emotional. “Silk Skin Paws,” its opening track and Wire’s prettiest song, feels like it should be wide-eyed and romantic, yet the chorus (sung in Beatlish harmony) is “I shift blame to the worm in the bottle/ I shift blame to anyone standing before me.” It seduces and confuses at once.
“Silk Skin Paws” was played three songs into Tuesday’s set at Cambridge’s The Sinclair, and was the closest thing to a “greatest hit” all night (representing Pink Flag was the encore “Brazil,” all 41 seconds of it). Otherwise the night focused on Wire’s new, self-titled album (ten of its eleven songs were played) which harked back to the feel of Bell Is a Cup—Once again the songs are oblique and improbably lovely. At times the meaning is more graspable—“Blogging,” which opens the album and the show, is clearly about digital-age dislocation, but the arrangement harks back to Television and pre-Goth Cure, and evinces the youthful energy of that era. With three-quarters of the original lineup intact the band now includes the young loose-cannon guitarist Matthew Simms, who’s there to layer drones and feedback behind the melodies. But the unlikely key to Wire’s sound is Robert Grey, a drummer who does nothing but pulse. Though he plays a full kit he barely touches anything but the bass drum, snare and hi-hat; fills and frills just aren’t in his vocabulary.
Indeed, the sound was often so inviting that it seemed Wire were easing comfortably into middle age. That’s probably why they closed the set with “Harpooned,” the finale of the new album and a song from a different world altogether: It’s dense with a lurching tempo and two chords pounded into submission for ten minutes-plus, culminating with Simms smashing his guitar into the amp. It’s typical of Wire to spend an hour creating a reassuring mood just for the pleasure of trashing it.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.