Wire is 40. They played their first gig in 1977, released their debut album—Pink Flag—and started one of the strangest, most unpredictable journeys in rock music. The anniversary coincides with that of punk’s landmark breakthrough year, which includes that brilliant debut of brief bursts of energy and intensity, though Wire’s entry in the punk canon is almost coincidental. Everything they’ve released since has sounded nothing like Pink Flag, and even that album is a dramatic departure from the intense four-four anthems put out by The Clash, the Pistols and The Damned. In fact, every album they’ve released since, with certain exception, sounds little like the one that preceded it.
Silver/Lead, the band’s 15th album (released in conjunction with their 40th anniversary), doesn’t break the band’s pattern of starting fresh with each new entry into the studio. Yet it’s not an orphan album by any stretch. Though Wire’s long been a band hesitant to retread familiar ground once it’s already been covered, their instincts nonetheless lead them toward something that feels of a piece with their catalog as a whole—a differently shaped and colored piece, yet one that fits all the same. Silver/Lead is bathed in shades from the same palette as their 2015 self-titled album and its companion album, 2016′s Nocturnal Koreans, but still feels like a unique work unto itself. It’s the most texturally interesting, hypnotic Wire album in some time.
It’s tempting to call Silver/Lead a shoegaze album on account of its density and richly distorted layers of guitars. That’s not necessarily the endgame for Wire; these are songs that are meant to be heard as such, the melodies dominant amid the fuzz and effects and not vice-versa. The wall of sound that the band emits is impressive, though, providing one of the hardest rocking highlights of the entire set as vocalist Colin Newman provides his most immediate vocal delivery. Yet Silver/Lead on the whole doesn’t find the band raising the volume throughout. Rather, Wire make a big-sounding record without making one that necessarily feels intense or explosive. “Diamonds in Cups” balances some T. Rex-style glam strut with shimmering dream pop effects, while the Graham Lewis-sung “Forever and a Day” is a moody pop track that offers the rare example of Wire delving into love song territory: “Ooh darling/I want you to stay/Ooh darling/Forever and a day.”
The greatest surprises on Silver/Lead lie deeper down the tracklist, its final two tracks representing some of the prettiest material that Wire’s released in a long time—maybe ever. There’s a mournful and atmospheric glide to “Sleep on the Wing,” easily the most stunning single track here, while the title track is a shorter, albeit slower moving dirge that juxtaposes acoustic and electric guitars to mesmerizing effect. It’s here, in the final two tracks, that Wire’s not-a-punk-band status is most evident. After 40 years, they’ve proven themselves to be not just a versatile band, but one that’s able to get it right just about every time. That Silver/Lead still sounds very much like a Wire album reaffirms them as the rarest of breeds: a band that can constantly be changing yet always sound like nobody but themselves.