By 1988, the “modern rock” scene was finally starting to catch up to what Wire had done a decade earlier. The band got a bit of a boost from R.E.M. covering Pink Flag‘s “Strange” in 1987, and with this album’s “Kidney Bingos,” they scored an actual college radio hit of their own, one that couldn’t have been much more different from their early records. It’s a terrifically charming, catchy song, though, built around a seraphic guitar riff and nearly verbless lyrics that might as well be an exercise in free association (they begin “Natural splits sunburn jets pride marks smart bets”).
As usual for this era of Wire, it’s hard to tell for sure what Colin Newman and Graham Lewis are singing about: “Come Back in Two Halves” condemns nostalgia in the vaguest possible terms, and “Silk Skin Paws,” also released as a single, seems to involve drinking as a path toward Arthur Rimbaud’s “systematic derangement of the senses.” But the words are usually just a vehicle for their singing voices — Newman’s high and reedy, Lewis’s low and plummy.
Eighties Wire were essentially a groove band, never better than when they found a rhythm they could settle on and repeat ad infinitum, varying its instrumental textures by degrees. (“Boiling Boy” is still a highlight of their live shows; “The Queen of Ur and the King of Um” somehow manages to be ascetic and rollicking at the same time.) In retrospect, the keyboard and guitar sounds they favored on A Bell have less in common with “modern rock” than with New Age and ambient music. Somehow, though, they figured out how to make them abrade, in the context of Robert Gotobed’s big, smacking beats. The B-sides that augment the current version of the album include an eight-minute live workout on the by-now-inevitable “Drill.”