The post-punk cinq glorieuses of 1977-1982 saw new wave, art rock bands like The Cure (Three Imaginary Boys, Seventeen Seconds, Pornography) and Talking Heads (More Songs About Building and Food, Fear of Music, Remain in Light) make astonishing artistic progress - progress that in most cases was not continued thereafter. Wire were part of this movement but unlike many of their fellow travellers, they did not lose their forward momentum, despite artistic hiatuses for solo projects in the 80s and 90s. After forty-years of development, Wire's music - as many reviewers of their new, self-titled album observe - still sounds fresh. Yet the new album preserves the essential Wire formula: a tight, pulsating musical minimalism that is simultaneously portentous and playful.
This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Wire songs often contemplate contemporary society through motifs borrowed from medieval literature and art, resulting in strange, angular visions of a 'world turned upside down' ('What Do You See'?) with lyrics that reference the folly paintings of Bosch ('Madman's Honey') and Bruegel ('Silk Skin Paws'). The songs trade in coded messages and enigmatic reportage. They don't so much conjure new or fantastical worlds as defamiliarize the one we are living in now, highlighting its absurdities through wordplay, condensed metaphor, ostranenie and mythological allusion. For example, the first track on the new album, 'Blogging', imagines the biblical magi arranging to attend the birth of Christ via the Internet; its wry take on social media is equalled in cleverness only by St. Vincent's recent track 'Digital Witness'. The ironic irruption of the mythical into a degraded and banal present recalls the poetry of Christopher Hill (with its descriptions of King Offa as 'overlord of the M5', and so on).
An intriguing facet of Wire songs is that many of them consist entirely of questions, usually delivered by Colin Newman in a tone that mixes aggression, amusement and accusation. Along with their atmosphere of menace, the interrogative questioning of Wire's songs captures the psychological and ontological insecurity of our times, the constant, bewildering liquefaction and reconstitution of identities and roles in today's society. It's just one of the elements that makes Wire such a distinctive and contemporary band, despite their advanced years. Indeed, few post-punk groups were as innovative as Wire, and they remain sui generis. They are still the flies in the ointment, the buzz in the drum of the ear, and the foremost British exponents of what Mark Fisher calls 'popular modernism' in music.