Wire – Red Barked Tree
he twelfth studio album for English post-punk cult heroes Wire sees the band return to the peak of their powers, delivering a consistent and powerful work with fantastic and compelling lyrical insight and strong, outspoken views on the state of modern society.
35 years ago, Wire formed in London, with Colin Newman on lead vocals and guitar, Graham Lewis on bass and backing vocals, Bruce Gilbert on guitar and Robert Gotobed on drums. Wire’s first three albums, Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154 were released in 1977, ‘78 and ‘79 respectively, and remain to this day among the most influential post-punk records of all time. After a five year hiatus, Wire reconvened in 1985, going on to release a further six records between 1987 and 1991. More breaks took place, and Red Barked Tree is just the band’s third studio album in the last 20 years.
Opener Please Take kicks things off with a relaxed tempo and glistening, staccato guitars, a deceptive form of instrumentation to compliment fierce lyrics (‘Please take your knife out of my back/And when you do, please don’t twist it’, ‘F**k off out of my face/You take up too much space/Move, you’re blocking my view/I’ve seen far too much of you’). The lyrics hark back to the punk sneer of the angriest lyrics of vintage Colin Newman, before the toe-tapping Now Was sees Newman showcase his trademark half-sung, half-spoken style. The simple yet propulsive drum beat from Robert Gotobed drives the track along, with some more accusatory lyrics from Newman on display (‘Where once was a diamond/Now hides a sly man/A corpse of corruption/In rancid decay… You sit on your hands til the trouble has passed’).
The magnificent Adapt at times recalls My Bloody Valentine in its shoegaze tendencies. The softly strummed guitars, subtle reverb-laden lead lines and delayed pianos help the track work to fantastic effect. Newman is at his most political here (‘Beware the timely statement leak/The trigger is the price of meat… The brakes are on, controlled retreat/Quick-go-slowly, heart valve weak’), and continues this through Two Minutes. This is the track that perhaps sounds most like vintage Wire, with fierce punk guitar chords and a distorted drum beat at the forefront while Newman sneers low in the mix (‘A dirty cartoon duck covers a village in s**t/Possibly signalling the end of Western civilisation/As if I give a f**k… Deputise/Wear your star with pride/Shoot on sight/Compose questions later/Religious vomit/Opera in the age of fragmentation/Much later/I’ll tell you who I hate on a daily basis’).
Clay is another delightful display of Wire’s ability to produce a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ track, disguising more impassioned punk lyrics beneath a nonchalant Newman delivery and a slow burning, tranquil pop song structure. This time, Newman cleverly rhymes ‘Phasing in/Wondering when it’s time to begin/The chances thin/Emptied out/No doubt it will end in a rout/We lack the clout’. The ambient intro of Bad Worn Thing takes subtle influences from modern dance music, showing the elements of sound Wire have added in their new material. The track sees perhaps the most abstract yet effective lyrics on the record come to the fore (‘Jam sandwich filled with Uzied peelers/Frisking pimps and dawn car dealers/The Fat Controller’s transport inches/When stealing lives, he never flinches’), before the record’s most anthemic sing-along moment in the form of the chorus, ‘The over-crowded nature of things’.
The abrasive punk of Moreover recalls the spirit of a much younger band, and sees Wire at their most revitalised, churning out energetic and powerful music that can be embraced by, according to the band’s press release, ‘pastel-tinged pop aficionados and bleeding-edge avant-rockers alike’. A Flat Tent is another piece of disaffected punk perfection, resplendent with clear and simple lead guitar lines, dark minor chord inflections and Newman’s lyricism, lamenting modern technological progression. Perhaps the wittiest line on the record is a clear nod to Map Ref. 41Â°N 93Â°W’ from 154 where Newman rhymes ‘New techniques for self-transmission/GPS, pin-point position’. While some may see this as an innocuous line, it is an accurate summation of many of Newman’s ideals expressed on the record – we as a species have become torpid and supine; instead of having to think for ourselves, machines now do the thinking for us.
Smash, in a similar manner to opener Please Take, exhibits the progression Wire’s sound has made over the years. While many of their early tracks were frantic, skittering and fiercely intelligent punk (see Field Day For The Sundays, Brazil and Mr. Suit from Pink Flag), they have expanded to incorporate a more spacious, epic sound as seen on Red Barked Tree, while retaining their visceral, almost onomatopoeic lyrical fierceness (‘Crash at random, road-kill rage/Tarmac trauma, auto slain’, ‘Fur and guts and stone chip stain/Broken bones on the inner lane’).
The cavernous Down To This is an even more fully realised product of this progression in sound, delayed guitars and thumping kick drum beats complimenting Newman’s reverb-laden vocals and existentialist musings (‘All I know is time will waste us all/Time will fade us all from sight’). Closer and semi-title track Red Barked Trees sees the use of acoustic guitar strumming to create a foreboding feel, Newman closing the record with a dark and brilliant manifesto and concise summation of the modern day milieu and his view of 21st century life; ‘A privileged few, a charmed elite/Can slash and burn as they retreat/The search is on, in southern seas/To find the healing, red barked trees’.
Without a doubt the strength of Red Barked Tree lies in its lyrical content. The brilliant and provocative insights from Colin Newman show that there is plenty of fury and umbrage left inside the 56-year-old Londoner. From seething political references to prophetic statements about the environment, Red Barked Tree deals with a range of subjects in a magnificently compelling and thought provoking way. This is an early contender for one of the best records of 2011, and most importantly it serves as an indication that Wire have returned to form in a massive way, and remain just as relevant today as they were 35 years ago. Wire are back and here to stay.