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Wire
Wire Ben Graham , April 10th, 2015 09:14

I'm aware that the urban dictionary defines 'farage' as "to masturbate in an angry or confused way using unconventional stimuli," and that the estimable Mark Thomas has been popularising it as a word meaning "the liquid found at the bottom of a bin." But I'd like to propose a third definition of farage as a noun; a conflation perhaps of 'barrage' and 'farrago,' meaning a tangle of wrong-headed thinking, or a swamp of imaginary fears and faulty logic. A dismal mess, compounded by lack of empathy, clouded vision and self-pity, and fed by a constant, bewildering  assault of narrow-minded opinions, bullying prejudices and hate-mongering invective as you lash out blindly at the weakest, easiest target, searching for somebody to blame for the farcical predicament you find yourself in. We could talk, perhaps, of the recent Clarkson farage; or in more general terms, one might say "You've got into a right farage over this; calm down, for pity's sake," or indeed, "you've made a complete farage of that, you tosspot."

The dispiriting farage that English life seems to have descended into in this election year undoubtedly informs Wire's latest LP: perhaps inevitably, given that they have always been oblique observers on the shifts in our national character since their formation in the mid-1970s. It's become a cliché to describe a band as "quintessentially English," but perhaps Wire deserve the epithet more for it not being so obvious. They may not be larger-than-life eccentrics like Mark E. Smith or Billy Childish, nor deadpan comedians like Half Man Half Biscuit or Morrissey. But consider their reserve and detachment, coupled with a startling and persistent capacity for controlled aggression alongside moments of understated, gentle beauty. Add to that their dry, ironic humour, their wary, watchful introspection and the sense that they are ultimately an island unto themselves; and one too that seems somehow to remain always three-quarters submerged. This makes Wire one of the most un-showily English of rock bands in my book, a position they've maintained over a constantly evolving, near-forty-year career.   

If the band's thirteenth - or possibly fourteenth - studio album does in some way tackle the national farage, then the centrepiece is undoubtedly the seven minute-plus 'Sleep-Walking'. Uncoiling at a slow, menacing creep, the song's refrain of "the narrowest vision often has the widest appeal" leaves little doubt as to what kind of (police) state we may be in danger of sleep-walking into.  And though the song actually deals with the recent devolution referendum - speaking from a pro-unity point of view - lines like "left out, abandoned, we're less than ideal," can still be read as an identification with the increasing mass of the disenfranchised and dispossessed- the very constituency that punk rock originally spoke for- while "should bully tactics triumph when no-one cares, and all stand idly by" warns of the wider dangers of remaining aloof and uninvolved. Indeed, the current farage feels similar in many ways to the confused and desperate state of play in the late seventies, when punk happened and Thatcher first came to power; a time reflected in Margaret Drabble's novel The Ice Age, chronicling personal responses to Britain's economic decline and loss of influence on the world stage, resulting in a drift towards a very English kind of fascism. The glacial movement and blank-eyed guitars of 'Sleep-Walking,' which begins with the line "We're at a tipping point," suggest a similar icy dread.

Elsewhere, 'Blogging' opens the album on a high, with Graham Lewis' instantly recognisable bass guitar locking into a four-to-the-floor disco groove between Robert Grey's drums and squelchy synth stabs, rewriting the Bible using a contemporary, internet-generation terminology of "Google style maps", "Amazon Wishlist" and "Blackberry Hedgefunds."  'Shifting' similarly applies the language of espionage and global politics to the end of a relationship, over a melodic, summery sway that nevertheless maintains the band's customary sense of distance. 'Burning Bridges' flirts with psychedelia, as the gently descending, clanging guitar conjures faint echoes of 'Dear Prudence' or the Kinks' 'Shangri-La.'

Much has been made of 'In Manchester,' with the band stating that the song has little if anything to do with the city in question, which merely provides the backdrop and a nagging chorus hook. Perhaps so, but the song captures a characteristically Mancunian, chilly euphoria that New Order or Kitchens Of Distinction in particular would be proud of.  There's also something of the polished, propulsive sheen of latter-day New Order to songs like 'High' and 'Joust and Jostle,' but these pass in a blur and, at worst, risk slipping into the category of post-punk driving music for the next generation of dad rockers- smart, accomplished, but maybe too easily digested. And indeed, 'Split Your Ends' seems to address the dangers of just such middle-aged complacency, advising "mend your ways but split your ends." Yet the speeding clean guitar strums and needling riffs of 'Octopus' are irresistible, the bobbing bassline and gated reverb pushing the drums on the chorus and generating a classic piece of edgy punk-pop, right down to paranoid lyrics about "a man outside who says he's come to read the ether" and the deadpan spoken repeat of the word "Delay"- the spirit of 1978 is gloriously present and correct.

But this is ultimately an album that is very much about now, and so it ends with the eight and a half minute 'Harpooned'; a slow, churning leviathan of a song, in which the brief entry of a near-pastoral synth line just before the midpoint does little to offset the claustrophobic, heavy distortion of the monolithic guitars and the regimented plod of the drums. A song of madness and anxiety, of someone pushed past the breaking point, it again conflates the personal and the political, as the crushing weight of the music seems to suck all the air out of the room and we're left to contemplate benefit sanctions, food banks, ATOS reports and all the other outward symptoms of the war being waged on the poor and vulnerable by those in power. It dissolves into wordless wailing before breaking down into a scraping grind; a brutal, ugly, pitiless sound. The sound of the farage we're in.

Wire play five nights at The Lexington next week (14th - 18th April 2015). For more information and tickets please go here

    

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