Release Date: September 1979
In what is perhaps the least appreciated LP of Wire‘s remarkable two-year, three-album run, Wire’s legendary third LP, 154, starts out with one of, if not the most, dark songs of their early discography. Nary a trace of the band who made Pink Flag remains. This just less than two years later. That’s not to say Pink Flag isn’t special, or unique, in the canon of early punk music. There is, nevertheless, not much of an indication of the textured, nuanced, and varied music that was yet to come. Between the occasionally oppressive darkness of several of this albums highlights, the shiny pop music (“Outdoor Miner” from 1978’s Chairs Missing and “Map Ref. 41N 93W” from 154 come to mind) sprinkled throughout their early discography, and the atmospheric uniqueness and unusual instrumentation of songs like “Single K.O.”, there are few bands, if any, with as impressive of an early run.
Bassist Graham Lewis really stepped up on this album, having contributed more lead vocals than previous, as well as putting forth some of the darkest sounding songs one can experience in this world. This is not an exaggeration. “A Touching Display” is one of the darkest songs in existence. The loud distorted, doom-like guitar riff that comes in around the 3:45 mark is one of the most powerful and crushing riffs I’ve ever heard. This being 1979, it’s an incredible and incredibly original feat. They preceded (non-Sabbath influenced) Doom Metal and Post-Rock by more than a decade with this track.
“A Touching Display” is followed up by one of guitarist Colin Newman’s finest tracks, “On Returning,” which brilliantly rides the line between dark synth-laden atmospherics and peppy early-2000’s sounding indie rock. Though of course preceding the movement by a couple decades, and in fact partially inspiring it.
“A Mutual Friend” is one of Colin Newman’s darker entries, but compared with Lewis’ tracks on this album, Newman likes his moments of brightness to contrast with the darker moments (something Bauhaus quite excels at, I might add).
Where Newman really excels though, is writing a good melodic vocal hook. “Once is Enough” features some of the brighter and more hook-laden moments on the album. But what is perhaps the real album highlight from this perspective, is “Map Ref. 41N 93W” which features one of the band’s biggest and strongest choruses, featuring a profoundly ear-wormy, emotive, and layered vocal arrangement. Immediately after this borderline poppy moment, we’re then thrown headfirst back into the darkness with Newman’s own “Indirect Enquiries”. This time, riding less along the lines between bright and dark, and proffering his own Lewis-style full-on darkness. The “you’d been defaced” mantra repeated, whispered, and yelled for the last minute or so is downright creepy. Newman again takes us back mostly into the light on the albums final track “40 Versions,” which features a rather comforting vocal performance and vocal melodies, though a couple elements remain that keep you from feeling completely at ease. Namely, that mildly dissonant effected semi-Wah guitar chord that is struck throughout the song. The album is a journey that keeps you guessing all the way through.
154 is one of the most innovative and influential albums of all time and anyone who doesn’t experience Wire’s first three albums are missing out on a significant element of music history, being the progenitors, intentional or otherwise, of several subsequent musical movements.
Highlights: “I Should Have Known Better,” “The Other Window,” “A Touching Display,” “On Returning,” “A Mutual Friend,” “Map Ref. 41N 93W,” “Indirect Enquiries”