The English post-punk institution continues its latest hot streak with LP no. 18
Wire is, without any doubt, our greatest art rock band. They deserve to be spoken of with the same flurry of furious words in which we wax rhapsodic about Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Crimson, etcetera.
Only, here’s the diamond asterisk: Wire have maintained a literally unprecedented consistency, a remarkable ability to cast a spell of immersion, rapture, and star-spray guitar thrall that remains at a nearly peak level of quality and engagement from album to album to album, regardless of the year – or even the century – that the calendar says.
Yeh, but does that matter right now? During this horrific, appalling, gun-less war, does Wire matter? Both nature and history have reminded us that we–the clumsy and arrogant products of evolution, equally full of grace and resentment–are not actually in charge. At any moment, everything that we took for granted about our lives can be surrendered to the unfinished business of our past sins and the dumb assault of invisible armies.
Which came first? The empathy that led us to fall under the life-long thrall of left-of-the-dial music…or did an affinity for alternative music cause us to see the outsider perspective? Were we bookish, bullied, un-kissed and un-athletic, and this caused us to look under rocks, between the covers of Trouser Press or the NME? Or were we “normal” Joe’s and Joe-ettes, and after we found the sky-high spirals and the blue-black lagoons of independent and British rock, this unveiled a world beyond the Farrah-waves of high school, and the feral Greek life of college?
Either way, there is a fairly fierce affinity between the lovers of strange music and empathy for the disenfranchised. Personally, I can aver that being an absolute devotee of underground music made me a resident of the Kingdom of Outsiders; this in turn, became a life led paying attention to the noise and silence of the marginalized. This all may not make a lot of sense, so let’s hand it off to one of my all-time favorite sages, Phil Ochs. This great Bodhisattva of protest said this: “In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.” See, friends, when we open our hearts to tender music, we open our hearts to a more tender world.
And Wire, the greatest art rock band of our time, matter. 10:20, Wire’s 18th studio album (and their second of 2020), is one of their very greatest records. Uh-huh. 10:20 is continuing evidence of The Wire Miracle, something that makes them virtually sui generis in our experience: 43 years after their recording debut, they are still making records that are as exquisite, provocative, and as satisfying in execution and concept as the (truly) adamantine work they were doing a generation or two ago. This is all to say that if one were to encounter 10:20 with no prior awareness of Wire, one could still completely be blown away by the experience.
(My use of the word ‘adamantine’ to describe Wire’s first three studio releases, 1977’s Pink Flag, 1978’s Chairs Missing, and 1979’s 154, is goddamn intentional. These were three genuinely flawless releases, each a streamlined, inventive, engaging and diverse different bulletin from the land where art and rock meet, where impulse and naiveté marry patience and deliberation.)
Now, some general background into Wire, and some more specific info on 10:20. Between 1977 and 1980, Wire released three essential studio albums (ibid, as they say), and one amazing, unique live record (which, in many ways, was more a statement on their process as artists and our expectations as a listener than anything that resembled a traditional live record). After a hiatus of about six years, the band reunited in the mid/late 1980s. Their studio work between 1987 and 2003 is, well, a slightly soft and curious spot in their amazing artistic arc, marking the only time in their career when they chose to step away from the crisp, orgiastic, lush but minimal bittersweet pop-punk genre that they virtually own. During this era (which is actually an important reference point on 10:20), Wire instead chose to emphasize brittle mechanical and industrial modes, and experiments detached from the essential art-sugar that generally defines their output.
But after the conclusion of their prolonged “investigative” stage (whose end-date I would put at about 2007), Wire’s work has been virtually flawless. More pertinently, every Wire album since 2008’s Object 47 has been fantastic, and the six-album run since 2011’s Red Barked Tree has been phenomenal/near-perfect. Those are big, fat, ecstatic words (but deserved), and they make this next statement even more incredible: It always seemed possible that Wire, always working within an eyelashes’ shadow of perfection, would release another album that was a flat-out “10”, inarguably equal to the grace, shiver, shimmer, and tension of their first three albums. 10:20 is that album.
10:20 is the fourth – or perhaps even the third – best Wire album. Now, keep in good goddamn mind that comparing Wire albums is like comparing Pink Floyd albums made between 1967 and 1979, or the Kinks output between 1965 and 1972: It’s all stunning, it’s all a little different, and on any given day, you might prefer one to the other. So take that all and stick it in the business end of your inhaler.
Amazingly, the phenomenal 10:20 was not going to be a general-release record. Until the pandemic, it was just going to be a record store day release. This is probably because 10:20 is not, strictly speaking, an album of new material. Half of it was recorded around 2010 and the other half around 2020 (hence the title), and all of it features the band revisiting and utterly re-arranging material that was either previously recorded earlier, or was written at an earlier time. This conceit does not impact the stellar quality of the album: The revisions of already recorded material are, without any exception, not only vastly superior to the original versions, but largely unrecognizable, and the never-recorded “old” material does not ever feel old or remotely second-rate. In fact, 10:20 is a record that moves from strength to strength, peak to peak, in very much the same way Wire’s first three studio albums did. Oh, and it is absolutely not necessary to be familiar with the earlier ideations of the previously recorded songs.
Let’s run down the album’s eight tracks. The first four were recorded in 2010 with a line-up of Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, Robert Grey (known in the 1970s as Robert Gotobed), Matthew Simms, and Margaret Fielder.
The original 1988 recording of “Boiling Boy” was buried in an impenetrable and distracting swamp of reverb and some unnecessary period-synth ambience, but the 2010 version here eliminates this artificiality entirely. Instead, the song emerges as a winding, chiming, tense yet liquid classic Wire album opener, quite reminiscent in feel and affect to 154’s “I Should Have Known Better.”
“German Shepherds” may remind you of a slightly more luxurious “”Map Ref. 41°N 93°W.” It hits the chime an’ hypnochurn sweet spot that is one of Wire’s favorite pockets, and it is far, far more inviting than the somewhat cold, Germanic version that appears on 1988’s Its Beginning to And Back Again.
“He Knows” (written in the early 2000’s, but never recorded) unfolds in that mysterious, opalescent, sun-dipping-over-the-sea style that Wire has essentially made their bread-and-butter for the last decade. In other words, imagine the orgiastic pulse and downstroke of classic Stereolab dusted with restraint, opium, and charm (eh voila, Wire!). The shocking “Underwater Experiences” has been recorded by Wire multiple times (in demo form going all the way back to the Chairs Missing era, and a thrashing, panicked version appears on the 1980’s quasi-performance art live album, Document and Eyewitness). This 10:20 version displays that Wire are still utter world champions at finding a way to use hyper-punk to communicate neuroses, hysteria, and Tourette’s-like neurological terror, and that the band can pull out a Pink Flag-esque bit of organized hysteria whenever they want to.
AUDIO: Wire “The Boiling Boy” (1988)
The next four tracks were recorded in the very recent past (even if the songs themselves were of earlier vintage), and feature Lewis, Newman, Grey, and Simms (we note that founding member Bruce Gilbert left Wire in 2004).
“The Art of Persistence” is vintage 2010 – 2020 Wire, which is to say it is liquid, lush, persistent, hush-a-baby melodic, the Perfect Land where The Feelies and Stereolab meet and discuss imaginary Krautrock bands playing “What Goes On” (that over-the-top word-Fribble describes the bulk of Wire’s brilliant, recorded material over the last ten years). This track also bears some melodic resemblance to “Blogging” from 2015’s Wire, and this may be the reason this fine, soothing yet absorbing song might have been shelved. An earlier version of “Small Black Reptile” appeared on 1990’s Manscape (one of Wire’s few, uh, difficult albums) in a herky-jerky, nervous, unappealing, largely mechanical version. Here it is restored to the vocabulary of luxury and tension, ambience and melody that is Wire’s comfort zone. The ringing, resonant “Wolf Collides” was recorded for 2017’s Silver/Lead. Like other songs on that album, it alludes to the rainbow-in-a-fridge mixture of warmth, ice, and cool that we identify with Chairs Missing/154 era Wire, though some deep guitar and synth repetition brings it up to a level of near-Floydish ambition. The incredible album closer, “Over Theirs,” was initially recorded, in severe, mechanical, strobe light tones, for 1987’s Ideal Copy LP. The new version almost completely re-draws the melody: in 1987, it was a bulletin, news from the front, barked, chanted, and virtually amelodic; the recording on 10:20 retains the urgency of their original recording, but uses a sighing, siren-like melody of great beauty. Also, the last four and half minutes of “Over Theirs” is remarkable, harking back to the proto-Branca/Sunn O))) hypno-guitar of “Reuters” or Pink Flag’s title track.
In fact, the new version of “Over Theirs” underlines what may be a prime function and intent of 10:20. I believe Wire were eager to revisit their least rewarding era (the lock-jawed, icy and robotic statements and glares of their first-reunion era) in a style that is (far) more commensurate with the guitar-based mesmer-churn, harmonic ambience, and come-here-kitty-kitty melodicism of the rest of the band’s catalog.
10:20 is so thoroughly rewarding, so engaging, so sensual, so tense, so immediate, and so thoroughly classic Wire, that it is shocking to consider that it was almost relegated to a specialty release. 10:20 is one of Wire’s absolutely essential albums. You don’t have to love Wire, or even know Wire, to fall for the churning, chiming, spacious, shocking charm of 10:20.
It is yet another testimony to The Wire Miracle, the ability of our greatest art rock band to remain relevant, majestic, strange, seductive, and incredibly consistent as they enter the sixth decade of their career.