More than four decades after turning punk on its ear with their rumba rhythms, quirky melodies, and ridiculously short songs, Wire have slowly become their own brand of maximalists. Although the songs on their latest album, Mind Hive, aren’t symphonic, 45-minute “epics,” they uncoil with drones, quivering synths, and the sort of rumbling guitar riffs that were their original calling card around the time they became a breakout punk group. It’s the core qualities of Wire, but magnified, and it’s all arranged in a new context on Mind Hive. After all, the only tradition this group has ever acknowledged has been recontextualization.
When they released their first album, Pink Flag, in 1977, they won over pogoers with their one-to-two–minute songs that had enough energy and melody to sound complete. Tracks like “Ex-Lion Tamer,” with its “Stay glued to your TV set” refrain, and “Three Girl Rhumba,” with its pile-driving guitar line, felt complete despite running half the length of a regular pop song. They were like the very essence of a song, perfectly compacted, which is something their peers in the Sex Pistols and even the Buzzcocks never tried to do. But when Wire released their second LP, 1978’s Chairs Missing, they wrote longer songs, got artier, and introduced synthesizer. The following year’s 154 went further adrift, and it’s that sense of adventurousness — questioning “What makes a song?” — that made Wire so consistently compelling, even after they drifted far enough away from punk to lose that fan base. Records like 1989’s keyboard-heavy It’s Beginning to and Back Again and 1991’s sometimes dancey The First Letter (released under the name “Wir”) showed how the group succeed at going adrift.
Mind Hive sounds more “rock”-focused than the band’s Eighties excursions, and it follows the excellent, post-punk album Silver/Lead with more flirtations with traditionalism. But it still sounds off-kilter enough to register as an album by the same people who made Pink Flag. It’s music that makes you want to dig deeper to decipher its intention. Vocalist-guitarist Colin Newman and bassist-vocalist Graham Lewis sing ominously and softly about Russian oligarchs (lyrics like those prove to be an anchor to current events), and they do it over loose keyboard beds on “Humming.” On “Shadows,” they narrate a scene of fascism and state-ordered mass murder, again over surprisingly restrained chords. And on the curiously titled “Oklahoma,” a song with a low-rumbling backbeat and somewhat uplifting chords, Lewis sings “I admire your sexy hearse/You knew I was dying/over-rehearsed.” But for as depressing as it sounds, the music is so avant-garde that it distances the lyrics from the sort of gory scenes and political intrigue you hear on the news every night.
Perhaps the most telling song about Wire’s state of mind is the opening cut, “Be Like Them,” on which Newman describes scenes of hopelessness (“tearing skeletons into piles of bones”) and feeling a malaise about it (“It’s nothing new”), all leading to the chorus, “They play it all for you/They explain it all to you/Telling you to be like them, be like them.” The message is clear: Wire will never “be like them.” It’s perhaps both the most transparent and most oppositional the group has ever been.