Review Summary: The beginning of the end..
What’s most commendable about 154
is how it sits in context with Wire’s 1970s output; the transition the band made over a two-year period from a balls-out, boisterous act to an occasionally minimal, oft decelerated outfit. Seminal debut Pink Flag
had taken a furious, speedy approach to punk rock, combining a three chord structure with raucous, sing-along choruses; critically acclaimed follow-up Chairs Missing
, released less than a year afterwards, saw the band borrow from the burgeoning art rock movement, as well as take keyboard and synthesizer use on board, undergoing a dramatic change in sound and settling comfortably amongst the frontrunners of the post-punk school of thought. An excellent sophomore in its own right, introducing a good deal of atmospherics into their musical palette, Chairs Missing
was a little unrefined, sometimes experimental to a detrimental degree and lacking in its ability to paint a full picture; 154
, on the other hand, feels like a tauter and altogether more cohesive package, profiting all the more for it. It’s as if Wire were able to take the pop sensibilities and raw aggression first developed on the debut, the penchant for experimentation and ability to fabricate luscious sonic soundscapes picked up on the sophomore and intermingle all of these ideas in a way that never loses its aim, demonstrating Wire’s signature wackiness, catchiness and ambitiousness in a neatly-wrapped forty-five minute package.
Let’s give the songwriting quartet of Newman, Lewis, Gilbert and Grey some credit here, as it seems like their compositional capacities are often overlooked. Wire were a constantly changing organism in their brief, prolific early years and, moreover, they were able to undertake substantial stylistic changes (shifts which, honestly speaking, many of their contemporaries wouldn’t even dare to try), continuously experiment, push their boundaries and somehow, somehow never lose their ear for a fabulous melody or ability to pen an anthemic track. The variation of songwriting on this LP is quite staggering; Wire were clearly aiming to please all types of audience with the thirteen tracks on 154
, as it truly feels like there’s something for everyone. There’s poppy goodness in the form of ‘The 15th’, a quite gorgeous number (pardon the pun) with floating synths in the background, infectious jingly guitar lines backed up by an outstanding vocal performance. It’s a song that’s in the vein of older material such as ‘Mannequin’ or ‘Outdoor Miner’, so wickedly catchy and accessible it would provide a suitable introduction to the group for first-time listeners and could conceivably be a radio hit had it been selected as a single. Elsewhere, there’s the timeless, cryptically titled ‘Map Ref. 41N 93W’, a track about cartology or exploration or maybe something entirely different, complete with a storming, memorable chorus (just try and not let it roll over your mind!) a la
‘Ex Lion Tamer’ or ‘I Am the Fly’ alongside bursts of ascending, descending guitars and mirrored by surface synthesizer work. There’s straight up rockers like the crushing, manic percussion and piercing, nightmarish guitars on ‘Two People In a Room’, harkening back to the Pink Flag
era, and like ‘Once Is Enough’, a track with foot-tapping bass and one which often threatens to spiral spastically out of control. There are eerily experimental, dissonant tracks like ‘The Other Window’ with its bizarre narrative approach, ‘A Mutual Friend’, developing during its four-and-a-half minute runtime from a creepy beginning to a passage with an English horn blowing serenely, its tranquility intermittently sundered by blasts of static.
And then there’s tension. Opener ‘I Should Have Known Better’ is fraught with it: synthesizers menacing just on the verge of perception, plodding bass, more or less the same chord continually struck, ominous distortion hanging in the forefront, continually enveloping all and dissipating as it pleases, coming and going with a higher degree of intensity as the runtime burns down, the agitation in Newman’s vocal delivery more noticeably poignant with each passing line – the subtle progression is altogether marvelous, crafted to perfection. LP centrepiece ‘A Touching Display’ clocks in just shy of the seven-minute mark. The song is the encapsulation of Wire’s experimentation and ambition: hark back a mere two years and their average song length was around one minute forty seconds and yet now they create this brooding monster without even batting an eyelid. A minute long jarring combination of three picked notes accompanied by symbols quietly crashing and rising enigmatic synths opens the track, followed by the entrance of an electric viola that wails sinisterly, weirdly complimenting the sustained vocals ever growing in character and conviction, for another minute before it gets louder and moodier still. From its gloomy introduction to its lengthy wind down and fade out, its tempo never really hits overdrive. It builds and builds, becoming more harrowing and earthshakingly intense from time to time. For all the tension, there’s no tangible sense of release. It’s a real masterwork; a journey into the depths of personal hell, a dark claustrophobic space that strangles you into submission before spitting you back out, bruised and broken, only to repeat the process.
Mike Thorne, producer of the first three Wire LPs, and credited with the keyboard and synthesizer work on both Chairs Missing
, attested to the difficulties encountered during the recording sessions of this album. Preexisting rivalries and jealousies threatened to split up the quartet, and within the confines of the studio Thorne referred to the undeniable personal tensions often manifesting during those long shifts, adding as an afterthought the tension likely rubbed off on the tracks themselves. And when things inevitably went to *** soon after, we’re lucky enough to be left with the remnants of the quartet’s bitterness and resentment towards one another; a social atmosphere that most definitely lends to the eeriness and overall tone of the record. 154
is the result of natural progression and a culmination of ambition; a diverse, accomplished approach to songwriting and revealing a refined, balanced approach to experimentation and melody, with top performances by the musicians from front-to-back. With this LP and the two preceding it, Wire had cemented themselves as canon within punk rock and post-punk in the space of a mere three years, such was the incredible craft they displayed. Regardless of their personal musical endeavors pursued over the years to come and the fact that upon their return, they were never really the same, well, at least they’d given us Pink Flag
, at least they’d given us Chairs Missing
and, most importantly, at least they’d given us 154