Named after the number of gigs Wire had played in its short existence, 154 showed exactly how far they’d come since they were a punk rock band — the attitude was the same, but the sound was unlike any record they (or anyone else) had made before. They’d originally written a set of wry, sneaky songs in the vein of Chairs Missing, but with the aid of producer Mike Thorne, they mutated, inverted and disassembled them in the studio. Rhythms disappear from songs, or rise to hover above the surface of the mix; off-pitch keyboard squiggles occupy positions that would once have called for guitars; Colin Newman and Bruce Gilbert play sluggish, dissonant tone-clusters again and again until they embed themselves.
If one of their songs sounded or acted anything like straightforward rock ‘n’ roll, Wire messed with it until it didn’t. “On Returning” is a punk-pop song mixed like deep dub, with most of its guitar riff wiped away and the rest smudged into a blur; “A Touching Display” is taken at a crawling pace, and eventually incorporates a scorched-earth electric viola solo; “Blessed State” starts out as a sweet four-chord hymn, then dissolves into a mass of a few pinprick guitar notes repeated against each other in every possible combination. Newman’s singalong “The 15th” — recorded without Gilbert — never names or even implies its subject (“denied, it learned as if it had sooner been destroyed”: okay, then!).
154 is also, in some ways, Wire’s funniest record, although they had a deeply peculiar sense of humor: it came out in ways like beginning the album with an original song called “I Should Have Known Better,” or titling the big pop single “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W” (its first chorus is introduced by Newman yelling “Chorus!”). You can hear the band beginning to splinter, as they did not long after the album was released, but you can also hear them realizing how extraordinary their musical chemistry was, and how far they could push their art. “My God, they’re so gifted!” Newman yells in “Two People in a Room.” He could have meant his collaborators.