When people talk about their favorite Wire album, Document and Eyewitness rarely makes the list. I can see why; it’s a roughly recorded artifact of half-finished songs, a visuals-free replica of a performance art event made by a band about to implode. But if you appreciate Wire for their sarcastic orneriness, this double LP was their acme. They made most of it at a London concert that took place just after the quartet had parted ways with EMI. People who expected them to put their best foot forward in order to snag a new contract were confronted instead by the band behind a scrim, with the stage periodically invaded by extras in paper headdresses. An obnoxious MC harangued the crowd, a guest saxophonist bleated where he didn’t need to be, entropy reigned supreme. It was the punkest thing they ever did, although I seriously doubt that’s why they did it; they were just sick of what they’d become and were ready to move on.
In 2012, Wire -- which now comprises guitarist Matthew Simms alongside founders Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, and Robert Grey -- got together in a studio to see what they could do with some themes that had been shit-canned when they split up for the first time in 1980. Some of those tunes had appeared Document and Eyewitness; tellingly, almost none of them showed up on the post-breakup releases by Newman and Dome (Lewis and departed guitarist Bruce Gilbert). The idea was to use the old material to point Wire in a new direction, and the sessions that ensued yielded Change Becomes Us.
Although you can hear several tracks that are obviously derivatives of cuts from Document and Eyewitness, this feels much more like an extension of Wire’s last studio album, Red Barked Tree. But not always in a good way — like it’s successor, which sported several songs where Wire seemed to be rewriting their own songs, there are moments where it feels like the past is a safety net for a band that never used to need one. And nothing on Change Becomes Us follows up on RBT’s most audacious move, which was to play topical acoustic songs that refused to lapse into pathos or corniness. They’d never done that before, and they aren’t doing it now.
Instead, we get Wire fiddling with pitch-corrected vocals, playing a bulked-up version of their trademarked terse pop and frantic punk, and turning memorable 30-year-old provocations into sleek, atmospheric productions that necessarily give up a fair bit of the old bite. Just compare “5/10” to its descendent, “Time Lock Fog,” and you’ll see what I mean. Revisiting the past isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but turning elements from one of their discography’s savage outliers into a competently turned-out, but not outstanding new chapter in the ongoing story of Wire hardly seems like the most ambitious thing they could have done with that material.