Wire’s Remarkable “Change Becomes Us”

On the occasion, in 1981, of Wire’s release of Document and Eyewitness, a mess of an album that was seemingly all that was left of the band after their premature demise, one young pup of a rock critic wrote in NY Rocker that “there has never been a band so interesting precisely at the moment when their reach exceeds their grasp.” Yes, gentle readers, that young pup was our head Tulip Frenzier, we meant it at the time, and we still mean it.

On the occasion, in 2013, of Wire releasing Change Becomes Us, which was recently recorded but is comprised of songs meant to be on Wire’s fourth album, to have been released in 1980, we are almost thunderstruck with gratitude.  To understand just how joyful it is to have Wire, 33 years on, give us the album that was originally meant to be the follow up to 154, you have to go back in time, and fathom just what Wire meant to us then, and means to us more broadly.

Between 1977’s Pink Flag and 1979’s 154, with a stop along the way for the gorgeous Chairs Missing, Wire went from a wholly original, atomized breakdown of rock’n’roll into its constituent, crude but thrilling pieces to producing something that qualified as art rock.  In rock evolutionary terms, Wire had traveled in just two years from three-chord rock to astonishing virtuosity, something akin to the Beatles releasing Abby Road in 1965, or the Stones giving us Exile In Main Street before releasing “Satisfaction.” Pink Flag may actually have been the most influential of all the British punk albums, the equivalent to the first Velvet Underground album in terms of its inspiration to art school wastrels to go form their bands, and even as late as the mid-’90s, bands like Elastica were ripping off songs like “Three Girl Rhumba” with brazen glee.  When 154 came out two years later, with its title reference to Studio 54 confounding us as to whether it was meant as homage or irony, Wire was simply the most innovative band in the London-NY circuit, and their departure, along with the death of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, signaled the coming Dark Age of 1980s rock.  Two back-to-back songs on 154, “A Mutual Friend” and “Blessed State” encapsulate the moment: the first one incorporating Roxy/Eno influences into a song that started as a dirge, the latter a perfect pop number with gorgeous guitar work.  By the time we got Document and Eyewitness, and were given the unhappy assignment of trying to make sense of it, Wire was a band that seemed to have evolved beyond human possibility, exploding like a supernova.

Except they didn’t.  They came back in the late ’80s, and still were great.  Yes, those albums are a bit hard to listen to because with the advent of CDs, Wire, along with most late-’80s acts, produced records that were far too trebly and brittle of sound.  But the songs held up, and the band kept going, even as they lost their genius-level guitarist Bruce Gilbert along the way.  We loved Red Barked Treewhich hit these shores in 2011, and earlier this year, another of their remarkable live albums came out, showing that the three old men of the band (Gilbert having been replaced by a young guitarist, Matt Simms, who seems to have had the perfect role model), can still give us enormous pleasure.

Change Becomes Us does not have the revolutionary clang of 154, in part because it was made by a band 3/4’s consisting of men in their 50s, in part because the world has caught up.  But it has all the magic that Wire has always had: Colin Newman’s unique ability to be a pretty pop singer and a cockney rebel on alternating songs, Robert Gotobed (nee Grey) and Graham Lewis, more than thirty years hence, still proving they were the most compact, deceptively sophisticated minimalist rhythm section since Ringo and Macca.  Change Becomes Us gives us something quite marvelous: a band in its full state of maturity offering us the freshness of youth, punk’s rebellion and art rock’s sophistication chiseled from its fossilized state into something with the marvelousness of the walking dinosaurs in those early scenes in Jurassic Park.  Wire has long since been able to grasp whatever it reaches for, but is no less interesting for it.

2 Responses to “Wire’s Remarkable “Change Becomes Us””

  1. […] yesterday’s rave about Change Becomes Us,Wire’s excellent brand new album of songs that actually had a prior life on the […]

  2. […] few weeks ago, we posted a review with some of the backstory on how it came to be, more than 30 years hence, that Wire would record in a studio many of the […]

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