Not many albums sound as disturbing — and at the same time so lovely — as this one by Wire, a British band that played punk in the ’70s and later switched to enigmatic, keyboard-based rock. Wire states its apparent agenda in ”Life in the Manscape,” the opening song. ”Life in the manscape is coming apart,” band member Colin Newman sings. ”The soul is for hire and they’ve sold the heart.” But why do the keyboards that blare through this message sound so improbably cheerful? Evidently Wire can’t express despair — ”cheap despair,” as the band later calls it — without ambiguity.

After this unsettling start, the album descends into even more uneasy depths. Newman intones such inexplicable phrases as ”Patterns of behaviour/I’ve been to Monrovia” (in ”Patterns of Behaviour”). Songs like ”Small Black Reptile” and ”Children of Groceries” sound from their titles like self-conscious attempts at surrealistic humor.

But the music suggests something more. It’s wonderfully crafted, amounting to a textbook in evocative synthesizer sound. It’s expressive, too, oscillating between pain and meditations. No matter what discomfort the lyrics might indicate, the music is strangely beautiful.

”Other Moments” begins in a syn-thesized electronic fog, with a cymbal buzzing inside it like a trapped bird. The tolling in ”Morning Bell” evokes a profound peace. ”What Can You See” snarls and jabs while Newman sings, ”I met the blue man/I hear his noise on the stairs.” He could almost be having a nightmare. Longing for serenity that the contemporary manscape can’t provide, he thinks he sees something terrible coming. But he describes it only in evasive terms; he doesn’t know what it is and can’t bring himself to ask.

Finally the band plays ”You Hung Your Lights in the Trees/A Craftsman’s Touch,” an artistic triumph fully 10 minutes long in which luminous chords hover near a relentless, patterning beat. Again, Newman strains to say what he means. ”What crimes are on your record?” he asks. ”When did you lose your wings?” This is music about a despair the band can barely speak about, music that, at its best, reaches far beyond the usual artistic bounds of pop. B+

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