Wire - Red Barked Tree
By: Brett Spaceman
How many bands have records which are older than some of the people who buy them, yet still remain vital? Wire’s latest album, Red Barked Tree, is their best since A Bell Is A Cup… yet takes its cues more from the 76- 80 Wire than the 85-91 model.
Of course the memory can play tricks. It seems that Wire have made more comebacks than a clone army of Lazarus’. Wire disappear. Then they come back. When they’re away, you know they’ll return. When they’re back, you know they’ll depart again. And when they’re gone, they’re never really away anyway. They are the Grand Old Dukes of Punk. Or Post-punk (Wire were post punk while they were Punk, if you get what I mean), or art pop, or…..Watford?
Anyone who thinks my jokes are bad would do worse than to have a quick surf to look at some of the press Red Barked Tree is getting. Hilarious. I don’t normally do this, but my review copy became delayed. ‘There’s a Postman somewhere in Belgium grooving to Wire’, according to the label. (Indoor Postman!) (See, I told you I was terrible.) The reviews are universally good. That isn’t the issue. Some of the conclusions are rather fun though.
Apparently Wire have:
“Nod towards Britpop”
“Returned to form”
Let’s deal with the first two. Colin Newman goes “Oi!” loudly at the start of ‘Two Minutes’ and so naturally ‘Two Minutes’ is ‘Parklife’ reincarnate. Guys, guys, do your homework. Wire haven’t re-invented themselves. Wire invented almost everybody else. Britpop, the artier side of Britpop = Wire all the way. Parklife couldn’t have existed without Wire. Just ask Albarn. His (then) girlfriend covered ‘Three Girl Rhumba’ but forgot to keep the words (and title) intact. (Elastica settled long before it ever reached a Courtroom.) The current landscape of British alternative music has been shaped by Wire as much as any other band you care to think of.
When Robert Grey left the band in 1990 Wire dropped the e becoming Wir for a couple of releases. Yet tellingly, Wire have not re-branded themselves Ire now that it seems guitarist Bruce Gilbert’s absence is a permanent one. Throughout their 35 year career Wire have presented themselves as antagonistic and confrontational, none more so than the intimidating presence of Bruce Gilbert. When Object 47 was released I speculated that the loss of Gilbert may have softened Wire’s sound. After all, a wire is nothing without some tension. I have always felt that the various creative forces within Wire were pulling in separate directions. (I have no evidence for this save for my own ears but even a superficial knowledge of the bands side-projects reveals what each party is bringing to the Wire table.) Yet it was a good tension, a creative, rather than a destructive force, and it meant that the bands music always varied between punk dirges and the most sublime pop you could imagine. One listen to Red Barked Tree tells me I was 100% wrong in my assumption. Don’t get me wrong, Newman was always the man anyway. I just thought he needed his protagonist to work against. I should have known better. Newman’s solo albums often trump those of his ‘parent’ band anyway.
So, recap… Britpop… Wire invented that anyway. Artpop, they invented that too. They can’t “return to form” because they’ve never been off. And yet ‘Red Barked Tree’ is different. However slight, however subtle, it does tread some new terrain for the band. ‘Adept’ is distinctly shoegazey, strongly reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything period. There’s some krautrock in here too (‘Moreover’) Weirdest of all must be the title track which has an almost Stereolab feel to it, albeit more guitar-driven. (McCarthy then)
It’s taken decades but Red Barked Tree is the sequel to 154. I must single out three songs. No, make that four. ‘Smash’, ‘A Flat Ten’ and ‘Now Was’ are all classic Wire with Newman typically relishing every syllable. (He’s not Mockney, he doesn’t drop his consonants) Then there’s ‘Bad Worn Thing’, one of the best Graham Lewis vehicles since ‘Torch It’. Lewis treads a thin line between early Bryan Ferry and ‘The Monster Mash’ but ‘Bad Worn Thing’ still scores big time. Those guitars! That bass! Ah.
Red Barked Tree sees Wire returning to Wire.
Parklife, for two minutes. Shelf life, 35 years and counting.