Red Barked Tree

Rating: 3.9/5.0

Label: Pink Flag

When is “more of the same” a good thing? Basically when it’s in reference to a new Wire release. With a career now spanning four decades (with a few break-ups and reunions along the way), the English quartet has gotten all the critical accolades and influence that anyone could ever want without much of that bothersome commercial success or breakthrough. Well, Red Barked Tree, their 12th full-length, isn’t going to change any of that, but it’s good to see Wire doing what they do best after all this time.

Red Barked Tree
is a collection of almost-pop songs, the kind of layered, hazy pieces of sound Wire has been making sporadically since the epochal Chairs Missing in 1978. With fractured, ringing guitar tones (Colin Newman and new member Matt Simms) and washes of what could either be synthesizers or heavily treated, well, almost anything stringed, the band specializes in songs so hook laden that they stick in your mind long after the album’s over. But they don’t stray far from the aggressive, brief snippets of punk energy that made Pink Flag such a memorable debut in 1977; one noisy track entitled “Two Minutes” (guess how long it lasts) is a full-on howl of monotonously furious drums and bassist Graham Lewis reciting bizarre lyrics, such as, “The dirty cartoon duck covers the village in shit/ Possibly signaling the end of western civilization.”

But it’s not all bizarre turns on Red Barked Tree. Minus founding member and guitarist Bruce Gilbert, the band still sounds much the same as ever on opening track “Please Take,” an eerie plea of a song that could double as piss-off. Over synthesizers noticeably reminiscent of their classic “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W,” Newman sings, “Please take your knife of out of my back/ And when you do, please don’t twist it.” It could be a snarky twist on a lover’s quarrel, except for the strange, hissing emphasis the singer places on the occasional syllable, keeping it constantly just off-kilter. “Adapt” adds some unexpected acoustic guitars to the mix (as does the title and final track), sounding almost mellow by Wire standards. “Bad Worn Thing” keeps its snappy, poppy drums and a throbbing bassline high in the mix with a tremendously fuzzy guitar almost an afterthought at the bottom; it’s infectious and funny, particularly with some borderline nihilistic lyrics like, “The overcrowded nature of things” and “They clip their speech/ They clip your wings.”

So, yes, at this point a band known for texture and innovation isn’t doing so much of the latter. But frankly, Wire has always seemed to pursue whatever sound compelled them, regardless of expectations, so it’s actually very fitting that they’d subvert even that eventually. Red Barked Tree is a solid effort by a band that’s been creating a sound for so long that they practically define it.

by Nathan Kamal

Key Tracks: Please Take, Clay, Adapt

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