Red Barked Tree

Despite fear-mongering from the messageboard Taliban, and some irate letter-writing from pearl-clutching oldies, Red Barked Tree is a Wire album, through and through. Amongst the primary colours and even numbers still resides that perennially cunning unit.

It’s ironic that in 1977 the punk conservatives denounced their subversive archness as apathy or vacuity, and today in another guise – stylistic departures like the philosophical ‘Adapt’, the folk-rocking title track, and ‘Bad Worn Thing’ – it’s perceived as compliance, meekness and ordinariness. Red Barked Tree‘s critics are put-off by a perceived air of mid-life conciliation, or disgruntled that post-punk’s very sharpest of postmodernists would stoop to such creaseless co-option. They deal here in decorous guitar-band regularities, emotion, and literal concerns – unabashedly direct and bouncily zealous. And in terms of form, hardly a crumb of cheeky conceptualism is mustered between 11 tracks: it’s all reason and logic.

It’s useful to remember, though, that however astringent the band got on Pink Flag, or dark as 154, the blowhard guttersnipe punks always sounded histrionic and bloated next to Wire’s kittenish response to the movement, and what they saw as the endless possibilities it proposed for the future of art. As has always been the case, it’s a joy in the creative process that defines the Londoners, a larksome quality appearing here in a far easier, more naked incarnation. The very same sense of ‘play’ that informed their debut is buried, somewhere, on lairy efforts like ‘A Flat Tent’ and mod-rocker ‘Now Was’; an essentially good-natured and unpretentious approach once adopted by their greatest admirers, Minutemen. Red Barked Tree reclaims the essence of their best work – the irreverence, the serene self-assuredness and the melody, but it’s their lesser recognized attribute – a gamely grace – that eclipses all else here.

Sounding wholly refreshed and with big mouths intact, the trio have pulled together a freestanding, populist record with such winning flair it’s hard to imagine a young British guitar band performing with as much class, purpose, or presence. By turns brash (‘Smash’), and cutely curt (‘Two Minutes’), Red Barked Tree finds Wire liberated, fitted for their glad-rags, throwing caution to the wind and almost intoxicated, at times to the point of senselessness. In the process sacrificing a little of the mystery of Send and the evidently transitional Object 47, the soiled new wave of hate-letter ‘Please Take’ (a sequel to ‘One Of Us’) and vitreous pop like ‘Bad Worn Thing’ take Wire further than ever before from the ‘neurasthenic’ anti-punk of yesteryear.

That said, the gently grooving rhythms, the sing-along choruses and the excited chord changes find their footholds in the calibrated constriction of ‘classic’ Wire; namely some crisp dynamics, punchy playing and the repetition – protracted to the point of concussing the listener on the surging ‘Moreover’. And while the majority of the tracks are full-bodied and forceful, and often frothy with fuzz and friction, they are carried by sparsely efficient drumming, which when pitted against the low bass region gives rise to an anxious undertow. Naturally, as products of the post-punk generation their songs are full of contradictions: simultaneously friendly and unfamiliar; arithmetical but rolling; and rabble-rousing but vaguely neutral. The overall outcome is a sound much like a summer cold – woebegone and chilled but caressed with ripples of tingly heat, valanced by Newman’s nacreous rhythm guitar that twirls though the wet, refined production beautifying everything it touches.

On ‘Adapt’ Newman exhorts: "Go east / Go north / Go south / Go west / Leave mouths open / With your best / Adapt to change / Stay unimpressed". Amongst other readings, it’s likely lyricist Graham Lewis is reflecting here, smiling back on three decades of tampering, deconstruction, and the rearranging of the weights and measures of music.

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