Wire: Red Barked Tree
Published: January 26, 2011
Red Barked Tree
The postpunk generation is redefining burning out and not fading away. The past decade hasn’t merely witnessed still-active postpunkers get reborn again hard, ferocity intact (see: the Fall’s Your Future Our Clutter, Nick Cave’s Grinderman), but also a small cadre of bands reforming and releasing new material that built on their seminal sounds (see: Gang of Four). The reformed Mission of Burma’s 2002-’03 live shows weren’t nostalgic victory laps but razor-blade rips through the cranium, and subsequent albums—like 2004’s ONoffON and 2006’s The Obliterati—showcased mature musicians combining intelligence and verve in often devastating ways.
Britain’s Wire arguably kick-started this wave. The London band that carved a singular postpunk/art-punk path with 1977’s Pink Flag, 1978’s Chairs Missing, and 1979’s 154 reunited in 1999 and recharged itself with the first two 2002 Read and Burn EPs (collected as 2003’s Send) and live shows that dislodged fillings, and maintained the momentum with 2008’s Object 47 even after guitarist Bruce Gilbert left. Red Barked Tree, Wire’s 12th album in its 34-year—and counting—career doesn’t stall the band’s forward motion. In fact, it at times refines Wire’s febrile men-of-a-certain-age orneriness into some of the more gorgeously pop gems of its career.
Red’s 11 tracks, lovingly sequenced, run just shy of 40 minutes, and the journey’s tempos and moods rise and fall. The album opens with a dose of polite spite (“Please Take:” “please take your knife out of my back/ and when you do please don’t twist it”), which eases into jaunty oblivion (“Now Was”), which rushes into “Adapt,” one of Red’s moments of beautifully languid misanthropy.
“Adapt’s” psych-folk guitar line drifts through the lava lamp of background textures, and Colin Newman, whose voice remains a steely distillation of permafrost detachment, free-associates the end times: “barricade your first floor doors/ evacuate your sick and poor.” His tomorrow never knew what hit it.
Newman’s lyrics have always mixed observational bluntness with sly wordplay, and when suspended in Wire’s heady musical colloid the result slides from prickly to pleasant and back again in a single verse. And while Red certainly contains such jolts—militant snare drums and a distorted guitar spitting like dead-radio/TV channel static behind Newman’s pithy recitation in “Two Minutes,” the reverberating crunch and motorik throb nearly suffocating the vocal in “Moreover”—for the album’s high points, the music and lyrics coil into a magnificent misery of the sort that rivals those masterful English-speaking songwriters of intoxicating downer pop: New Zealanders.
Case in point: “Bad Worn Thing.” An awkward collision of guitar, bass, and drums conspires into an oddly catchy, wonderfully skeptical melody, which cradles Newman’s knife-edged lines—“when stealing lives he never flinches,” “unnerving, swerving shifty places/ where little works or convinces,” “the growing pains associated/ with a past which no-one faces,” and the recurring “the over crowded nature of things” in place of a chorus. It’s entirely a personal weakness, but sometimes feel-bad pop is the only nectar that feels good.
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