Where Pink Flag had been about refining and mutating punk, Chairs Missing was concerned with dropping punk’s dogmas through a trap door and feeding them to the sharks. The streamlined, monolithic charge of Wire’s debut were almost totally replaced by other textures and techniques: rhythms that stalk or slither, arrangements that hover angelically (“French Film Blurred”) or explode into curlicues of noise (“Sand In My Joints”). The all-for-one songwriting credits of the debut were replaced by an unexpected division of labor between guitarists Colin Newman and Bruce Gilbert and bassist Graham Lewis: In this band, as it turned out, the person who wrote the words wasn’t necessarily the person who sang them. And the band’s guitar-bass-drums lineup was augmented by some jolting splashes of keyboard, especially on “Another the Letter,” a speed-drill song about a suicide note (presumably so called because the Box Tops had already staked a claim to the title “The Letter”).
Wire’s songcraft had blossomed too. Newman’s “Heartbeat” is all restraint: two notes, a melody that eats its own tail, and no chorus, eventually diminishing to silence. (They used to end their sets with it, to freak out audiences who expected a grand finale.) Bruce Gilbert’s “Too Late” goes in the opposite direction, building up to a chord that erupts out of the top of the song like lava from a volcano. The peaks of Chairs Missing are its two singles: a stomping rocker, “I Am the Fly,” about an insect as a metaphor for what punk had become and what Wire saw as their place in it, and an utterly delectable (and much-covered) pop song, “Outdoor Miner,” that’s literally about an insect. They were still minimalists at heart, of course: “Outdoor Miner” clocks in at a hundred seconds on the album, and it had to be expanded with a piano solo to be long enough for EMI to release it as a single.