WIRE – 154 (1979)

Review by: Jonathan Birch
Album assigned by: Jonathan Moss

As the opening chatter of guitars, the crash of drums, and the morosely leaden voice of a man who sounded like a cross between slightly less depressed Ian Curtis and a more animated Morrissey drifted from the car speakers, my father made a not unobvious remark: “Sounds a bit punk-ish”. And indeed, it seems the band Wire were riding the punk wave that had exploded only a few years earlier. Only this was post-punk, which means everything has more echo and self-loathing.
The chunky sounding guitars and crisply recorded drums and bass gives the record some soothing oomph, although the deadpan vocals can occasionally verge on the side of monotony. The opening number, “I Should Have Known Better,” begins to resemble the diatribe of a love-sick teenager scribbling forlornly in his diary, and the self-indulgent attempts at anti-music such as “The Other Window” only serve to make me seek a window to jump out of.

However, although the album (non-descriptively christened 154) was a bit hit and miss for me, the hits were certainly the high points in terms of the musical soundscapes that were created. “The 15th” almost sounds like a slice of 2000s indie/dance pop that could have been released recently and has nary aged except for some noticeably late-70’s synth notes. The chirping of guitars and ending chime of synthesizer creates an almost zen moment of relaxation. “Single K.O.” is a bouncy number with a particularly animated lead vocal and haunting background chants, making me want to don a leather jacket, shave my head, and go out looking for a pub fight.

Unfortunately, what follows was another dud for me, an entirely atmospheric mood piece of repetitive guitar groans, with a dose of tom tom drums that seemed to drag for an unneeded 7 minutes. The attempts at building a tense emotional despair was admirable, but ultimately reminded me of a less interesting Joy Division experiment. Still, props for the dedication. A “touching display” indeed.

More entertaining nonsense ensues, and I remained unimpressed by some feeble Krautrock imitations, until about halfway through “A Mutual Friend.” The song segues into the singer muttering something about the months of the year, backed by the relaxing caw of an English horn, before climaxing in the chanting of the line “He might replace the old with the moon” that seems to have a greater significance I can’t quite grasp. But goodness, is it unconventionally catchy. The song fades out of this reassuring note, and opens with another proto-indie/dance pop number, “Blessed State.” Although clearly Bowie influenced, this is something that one could easily picture The Strokes or The Shins playing. The guitar riffs have great forward energy, and the steady drum beat is toe-tappingly addictive to my replay button. Most successful, easily accessible, and probably my favorite song on the album.

Two more dirges commence, before my attention is once again captured by the “Single K.O.” twin, another energetic tune called “Map Ref. 41 Degrees N 93 Degrees West” that begins to morph into an anthem for the post-modern, with the lead vocalist subtly announcing “Chorus!” in lieu of the chorus. Very meta! The album then ends with two more industrial rock tracks, and 154 comes to a bittersweet end.

I have to say, for my first Wire experience, it was more intellectually enveloping than expected. The melodies are often eccentrically brilliant, and the hooks are subtle enough to make repeated listening a must. Indeed, I must have listened to the record at least four or five times to absorb most of the subtle nuances (albeit in fits and starts). While only half the number of songs appealed to me on an aesthetic level, I can safely say that anyone with interest in Goth Rock, Grunge, Progressive, Alternative, Metal, or angsty Punk in general will find something to cling to. It’s a tough unforgiving ride, but the influence 154 has had on the post-punk bands of the 80s is something that cannot be overlooked.

Final Verdict: 4.0/5