It always warms my heart seeing older bands releasing excellent, zeitgeist-approved records late into their career. Maybe its my own existential fear projecting outwards, but the concept of limited usefulness feels so ingrained in society these days that I can’t help but let out a sigh of relief when an act over the age of 50 produces something not only good, but relevant. I’m halfway through my 20’s, relatively young in the grand scheme of things, but I already feel as though my time is running out. Refer back to Young Thug’s now infamous quote from last month, where he states he wouldn’t buy a Jay-Z record because the man is basically just too old. There’s no way in hell I’m implying Young Thug speaks on behalf of everyone in that sentiment, but there’s a kernel of universal truth in that statement. More than 75% of Americans aged 12-24 listen to on average four hours of music a day, compared to a figure of 47% for ages 24 and older. This makes sense, of course; as you get older, responsibilities grow and priorities change. You get passionate about other, more boring, grown up things, like golf and gardening or baseball or whatever. But when you’re young, music is your LIFE. You fill your room with posters of the artists you love. You model your sense of style after them. You film embarrassing home made lip sync videos. These artists GET you, and when you’re young and angsty and feeling disconnected from the world, this connection is a big deal to you. To bring it back to Young Thug’s quote, what does a 42 year old multi-millionaire know about you and your life? Indeed, comparing average ages of artists to average ages of listeners shows that people tend to listen to music by artists closer to their age range. Compounding these two statistics, it makes sense that you can conclude that the younger the artist, the more they’re listened to.
But wait, Phil, what about artists like Bon Jovi and U2, who still sell out bazillion-dollar grossing stadium tours to this day? This is where relevancy comes in. Relevancy has always been an important element in media, but its been hyper-accelerated in the internet age, where it can be quantitatively measured via trends, hashtags and the like. Whether an artist’s relevancy is truly indicative of anything at all is up for debate, the biggest argument against it again being these massive stadium tours that career acts pull off, despite minimal press in their regard. But does anyone actually care about these bands anymore, aside from a few thousand Gen Y’ers in each city looking to revisit their youth one night a year for a few hours? Last year, Rolling Stone named U2’s invasive Songs of Innocence, Album of the Year, giving it a five star rating. This act, somehow both audacious as well as wholly naive, either willfully ignored the entire negative narrative around the album, or just completely missed it. Either option seems equally likely. This spawned a number of thinkpieces (as any mildly controversial act is wont to do these days) about just how clueless Rolling Stone has become. The magazine’s critical catering to legacy acts like Bruce Springsteen and Robert Plant over the past few years shows that this was no one-off slip up, and the internet’s utter decimation of Rolling Stone over these rulings shows just how out of touch the Rolling Stone world (old, rich, white, male) is with literally everyone else. These artists may be making bank, but I’d argue they’re broke when it comes to cultural currency, which, call me brainwashed if you want, is the more valuable form of wealth.
Of course, there are outliers to this extremely broad generalization of listening habits, acts that transcend the inherent generational schism. I tend to put a lot of favour into these acts because, let’s face it: it’s one thing to produce a body of work which resounds with people that are similar to you; it’s another thing to create music that not only speaks to the generation below you, but to do it on your own terms as well. Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds have been in the business for over 30 years now, yet his willingness to experiment with modernity resulted in one of the finest albums in his career, and of the year, with 2012’s Push the Sky Away. Swans’ rebirth in 2010 has been one of the most fascinating stories in music of the past decade. Once pioneers of the no-wave scene of the late 80s, Swans reformed as a mammoth post-rock band, releasing two of the most acclaimed records of their respective years in 2014 and 2012, both landing in the top ten of the highly coveted Pitchfork’s Albums of the Year list, arguably one of the best metrics we have for cultural relevance (to everyone considering milking your hate-reaction to this, get over yourselves; hating on Pitchfork is so 2008, and the website remains the most influential music blog since its inception in 1999). Nick Cave and Swans succeed in the face of youthful adversity because there is an elemental, timeless power to their music that simply cannot be replicated.
With any luck, Wire will be the next band to join this pantheon. They certainly deserve it. But where Nick Cave and Swans took time away from their main endeavors only to return to them better than ever, Wire hasn’t really gone anywhere over the past 40 years. There were years of inactivity back in the 90s, but the band has been more or less going strong since their inception in 1976. Wire is their 14th studio album, and rather than taking the reinvention route that their successful peers have, the self-titled nature of the album should be evident of their intent: to make the definitive Wire album. It’s no small task to summarize a 40 year career into a 45 minute recording, but Wire is massively successful in that regard.
Wire’s been ground-breaking since the get-go, incorporating many seemingly disparate influences into their brand of post-punk, a genre they basically invented. So a definitive Wire album becomes more than just an amalgamation of Wire’s music career, but of British rock music in general. What’s impressive is how succinctly the band manages to distill the vast array of styles into the record’s 11 tracks. Each song takes elements from shoegaze, psychedelia, krautrock, and post-punk and compacts them into what are essentially straight-forward pop rock tracks. It’s an inspiring reimagining of what modern radio rock could sound like if DJs had decided to worship My Bloody Valentine and, well, Wire, instead of Nirvana and Metallica. What ties everything together is Wire’s sharp-as-ever songwriting, which is filled with hooks and a charmingly curmudgeon-y sense of observation that apparently only old British people can pull off.
‘British’ truly is the key to unlocking this record, and Wire in general. Everything from the vocal filters on Colin Newman’s voice to the swirling guitar effects have unmistakable origins in the UK. Nick Cave and Swans have succeeded in their late career resurgences by tapping into elemental forces that connect on an international level; Cave with his “Prince of Romantic Darkness” thing, Swans with their “Unruly Power of Nature” thing. It’s unlikely that Wire will propel the band to such heights as their peers, as the force they tap into is so exclusively British that it may be difficult for people without a decent understanding of the culture to be affected by it. The songs are so well written that anyone can get enjoyment out of them, but an appreciation for British culture and music is a prerequisite to really love it, as it is definitely the most English album since These New Puritan’s Field of Reeds.
Fortunately for Wire, and for non-members of the UK, we live in this, like, totally crazy digital age where everything is, like, connected, man. I’m a Canadian writing for an American-based blog about a British album, and there’s nothing at all unusual about that. There’s a generation of disenchanted folk who will connect with Wire’s grumpiness, and internet-bred music freaks who will appreciate the band’s mastery of the last 40 years of rock. You can’t blame my heart for feeling warmed and generally more at ease by this record, when the band’s message is as clear as it is: it’s never too late to define yourself.
Ridiculous Made Up Genre of the Day: Chap rock