Wire: Blessed State
ink Flag was energy; Chairs Missing, inspiration; 154 is alienation. Named for the number of shows Wire had played to date and the last record of Wire's first phase because they had “run out of ideas,” their third album is the one most commonly dismissed. Producer Mike Thorne adds synthesizers to the band's sound as he did on Chairs Missing, but that record was vital, alive; it's telling that the two albums' lengthy centerpieces were called “Heartbeat” and “A Touching Display,” respectively. Chairs Missing is all pounding blood and fierce effort, whereas even at its most intense 154 feels reserved, held back, more able to snidely comment than actually reach out and effect events. And that makes it a much less enjoyable listen for most, but those of us who fall under its spell wouldn't have it any other way.
You see, the cold, mean, almost inhuman aura is what's so compelling about the album. Colin Newman's arch vocals on “The 15th” couldn't be any more detached (as Fischerspooner's cover proved), “The Other Window” is deceptively mild for such a nasty, contemptible story, and even the great “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W” is literally about soaring above it all. Bassist Graham Lewis sings more than ever before, and his mocking baritone graces many of 154's finest moments. He opens the record with the great “I Should Have Have Known Better” (no-one sings “calibrate my displeasure” like Lewis), and he sings the second poppiest moment here, the sublime “Blessed State.”
One of the rare Wire tracks written entirely by guitarist B.C. Gilbert, “Blessed State” purrs along on a jaunty (especially for this band) guitar line, Lewis sounding narcotized above it. The refrain lacks the sheer sing-along bliss of “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W”, but in every other respect this is a more conventional song, the sort of thing that if you took back to 1977 and played it to rabid Pink Flag fans they would have refused to admit could be by the same band.
What really makes it great, and makes it undeniably Wire, is the sarcasm. Sarcasm is contextual; what one of my friends may say sincerely could sound sarcastic coming from my lips purely because of who I am, and similarly the blissed-out coda to “Blessed State” sounds snide coming from Wire just because they're Wire (the same band that has Colin Newman sneer “chorus!” just before the most transcendent part of one of their best songs). But of course they're not going to leave it at that:
Closing doorsThey are of course far from the only band to sugar their poison pill, but “Blessed State” is so remarkable because even Lewis' vocals don't seem to be in on the joke. Just as Newman would later romanticize nonsense on “Kidney Bingos” by singing the words as if they were a love song, Lewis sounds here like he's entirely unaware of what he's reciting. As the song sighs to an end with the dreamy repetition of “Oh what a pearl / What a well made world,” it's as if he's forgotten what he was singing about earlier, a dreamy disconnect from the rest of the song as sharp as the disconnect between the rest of the song and the world. It's a lovely moment on purely sonic grounds, but a great moment when you take the context into consideration. A lesser delivery would have turned the harsh lyrics into an “ironic” rebuke to the refrain, another cynical attempt to be serious by focusing on the negative. But Wire aren't ironic, or cynical; they're sarcastic and wind up lampooning both sides.
To the fatal gift
Of a well-timed lie
Loved in the flesh
But butchered in the mind
Oh what a pearl
What a well made world
Wire have always been mean, but in a wonderful way. There's something pure and bracing about their misanthropy, their total lack of sentimentality. Combined with their instrumental and compositional prowess it's what has endeared them to generations, and it turns what would have been a pleasant interlude for almost any other band into a snarky rebuke of both hazy utopianism and “serious,” “gritty” attempts to overcompensate for said naïve optimism. They don't buy either aspect of the lyrics, even as they're making the song beautiful. All that, plus you can sing it in the shower.