The artiest bards of 1970s London punk, Wire‘s members never scored a hit single — unless you count Elastica’s 1994 Britpop anthem “Connection,” which lifts its central riff and deadpan sass from Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba” far more blatantly than “Blurred Lines” evokes Marvin Gaye.
As Wire’s latest album — its 14th, but the first to simply be called Wire — once again proves, many branches of the alt-rock tree are rooted in Wire’s technique of marrying brusque physicality to heady abstraction: Its subtle but pervasive influence is the only thing linking hardcore punks (Black Flag, Minor Threat), arch guitar bands (R.E.M., Sonic Youth) and willfully synthetic dance acts (Fischerspooner, Ladytron). Even today, a scrappy yet brainy unit like Parquet Courts rarely gets reviewed without a Wire mention.
When I interviewed Colin Newman at the time of Wire’s 2013 album Change Becomes Us, the singer-guitarist said he’d still like to achieve recognition from the 99.9 percent of the world that remains oblivious to Wire. And yet he acknowledged that Wire refuses to raise awareness of its influence by touring behind its greatest hits. During a San Francisco show that year, the band avoided not just its beloved debut, 1977’s Pink Flag, but also the most memorable material from just about every other album in its substantial catalog. Instead, its members alternated between then-unrecorded new songs and their most oblique output as the crowd dwindled.
Wire sometimes revels in this stubbornness. A seemingly heartfelt song, “In Manchester” features Newman crooning wistfully, as if that city held personal romantic significance, while Graham Lewis, who wrote its words, plucks out a nearly giddy bassline. But unlike a similarly bucolic 1979 single exactingly entitled “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W,” “In Manchester” bears no apparent relation to the location it celebrates; its emphatically catchy chorus is simply the most glaring of the album’s many non sequiturs.
Wire also continues a trend that resumed in the wake of original guitarist Bruce Gilbert’s departure in 2004 — that of catchy tunes performed cohesively. When the foursome reunited at the millennium’s beginning after diverging for ’90s solo projects, its techno-inspired rumble got bleaker and more jarring than even its earliest punk. But with 2008’s Object 47 and 2010’s Red Barked Tree, which was recorded as a three-piece, and Change Becomes Us, the first to feature replacement guitarist/keyboardist Matt Simms, Wire focused more on the communal experience of playing as an ensemble, and not on autonomously piecing elements together in the EDM production style of its ’00s efforts. By once again emphasizing the bonds that make them at least structurally a traditional rock band, the four reconfirmed their accessibility.
Wire both epitomizes and upends this. Peppered with online activities and destinations, “Blogging,” its opening track, contemporizes the Biblical Magi: “Three king researchers use Google Star Maps / Bethlehem manger, a high-rated app,” it begins. A subsequent rhyme references the Book of Matthew stanza about a camel traveling through the eye of a needle more readily than the rich entering God’s kingdom. Here, though, the results are markedly different: “Market moves fast in a blink of the eye / The needle is broken, the camel has died.” By the third verse, Lewis’ lyric shifts almost entirely to web commerce: Divinity lingers only in the latest Apple.
Wire outgrew the punk tag not only because its songs slowed down: By polishing a relatively sedate yet seductive vocal style, Newman learned to sing as if engaging in slightly suggestive conversation, a quality that suits Lewis’ love of both quotidian description and surreal sensuality. Gentle and steady, “Burning Bridges” edges closer to straightforward romanticism than the band has ever dared, as a soothing figure rescues a wayward soul before vanishing in the morning. Yet Lewis cannot resolve this common plight conventionally: “An asbestos chimney can shorten your life,” is this near-lullaby’s last line.
One reason for Wire’s continued relevance is that it was among the very first to achieve a particular aesthetic that would become widespread. By ditching rock’s blues-based traditions while embracing both the mystery of experimental forms and the power of poppy tunes, Wire invented a strain of post-punk that never went away. Although it released its lauded ’70s output on Harvest Records, an EMI imprint, Wire helped pioneer indie rock because it was — and remains — literally artistically independent.
Wire never completely obscures elements of what the band retains — The Byrds’ keening guitars, the brutality of The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd’s particularly English weirdness and, of course, the Ramones’ velocity. But even after nearly 40 years of making records, Wire still mostly sounds like itself on Wire — contrary, obtuse, thoroughly cool but oddly soulful, and full of wit. If you hear the occasional imprint of subsequent musicians (My Bloody Valentine’s layered buzz, Blur’s quaint Britpop, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s monumental drones), that’s because those are among the many bands this one birthed. The 99.9 percent might not yet know it, but it’s a Wire world after all.