Appetite for deconstruction

★ Manics release 14th studio album

MANIC STREET PREACHERS: Sean Moore, Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield. (Photo: Alex Lake)

Album review:

The Ultra Vivid Lament 
Manic Street Preachers
Released on 10 September
Sony/Columbia
★★★★

by Simon Whittle

· “Words wage war, meanings being missed,” sings James Dean Bradfield on Orwellian—first single from the new Manics album The Ultra Vivid Lament—“I’ll walk you through the apocalypse.”

What an apocalypse the past 18 months has been. Main lyricist Nicky Wire told Under the Radar: “One thing lockdown did give us was time just to rehearse, and face each other musically. Really dig in to try and make a record that we could play and be natural with.”

BOYS FROM BLACKWOOD: “The working classes will still give you an amazing band,” says James. (Photo: Alex Lake)

“It’s the most concise and beautiful set of lyrics that Nick had given me in over 10 years,” James told NME. “I got so bombarded with opinion, all the time,” Nicky adds, “that I retreated into myself on this.”

Citing “ABBA and The Clash” as the blueprint for the new album’s sound, it helped that James was gifted a century-old piano from his elderly neighbour a couple of years ago. He already wrote a top 10 album on it—last year’s solo effort Even in Exile about Chilean socialist folk hero, Victor Jara, with Nick’s poet brother Patrick Jones on lyric duties. Now that piano, which James only taught himself to play since he got it, has worked its magic on a Manics album.

ABBA and socialism

And what an album it is. The Manics are at their most experimental and relaxed on this album. The tracks are massive—‘glacial’ is the new ‘widescreen’—but this time, much more subtle in their use of textures, tempo and space. Like Lifeblood without its brilliant white straightjacket; like Futurology covering Rewind the Film.

On Don’t Let the Night Divide Us, the Manics channel ABBA to attack the Tories and champion socialism:

Don’t let those boys from Eton
Suggest that we are beaten – no, no, no

A land now so infected
Can be free and equal
And when the sunlight bathes us
With sympathy and kindness

We have the cause and the conscience
Wе have the plans and the purpose
The light will come and find us
Don’t let the night divide us

Reject all propaganda
They can’t hide from truth’s arrow
Vengeance will be yours and mine
We may use peace or violence
We may wage war or silence
This is a warning not a prayer

— Don’t Let the Night Divide Us

James: “That Eton line is just saying that once the balance has been tipped towards an egregious amount of privilege being displayed, then inevitably it must swing back the other way at some point. When it does, you’ll see something good. The working classes will still give you an amazing band—they’ll still give you an amazing writer.”

The four of us against the world

The whole record isn’t just bathed in glorious sunlight, there is sunset: Afterending, with its epic chorus, “Sail into the abyss with me,” is untouchable in its melodic, melancholic majesty; and in the cold Japanese winter of Still Snowing in Sapporo, Nicky remembers his former writing partner, Richey Edwards (the band’s rhythm guitarist who vanished without trace in 1995) through a video camera lens in 1993: “It’s still snowing in Sapporo, still breaking in my heart. The four of us against the world.”

I can’t get over how magnificent Quest For Ancient Colour is, with it’s noble piano opening, Sean Moore’s swift little Motown drum rolls taking things to another level. It’s not a Covid album but the pandemic, Brexit and its polarising effect especially on social media, Richey’s eternal presence and absence, and the death of Nicky’s parents in recent years all run through the album, addressing the theme of loss.

Quest For Ancient Colour is no exception, and is possibly about Wire’s re-analysis of old photos and footage again, akin to remembering a distant dream, and the deconstruction of what it means to be a Manic Street Preacher in these times:

“Modern life was killed and crushed by a derelict digitised love. My scream had lost its source, like a reservoir in a summer drought.” Other times, Nick’s at peace with the nothingness, like on Happy Bored Alone: “Boredom was always my best friend.”

Every chorus is essential and vivid. The Secret He Had Missed, with its irresistible ABBA-esque hooks; and Orwellian: “Every way you look, every way you turn, the future fights the past, the books begin to burn.” Nicky: “That track is about the battle to claim meaning, the erasing of context within debate, the overriding sense of factional conflict driven by digital platforms leading to a perpetual state of culture war.

Nicky Wire vs Nick Clegg

NICK CLEGG: Lib Dem “political oblivion” heritage

“The tyranny of social media—the very worst platforms, they just make me think of Nick Clegg [working at Facebook] in California, dictating people’s futures. How the fuck did that happen? The man who led his party into political oblivion.”

Diapause has a feel of The Clash to me, in its late-night, relaxed confidence; somewhere between London Calling and Combat Rock, leaning more towards Spirit of St Louis than Sandinista! Which can only be good, right?

The Ultra Vivid Lament is not just an organic, beautiful record—it’s a brave, stunning, glorious classic that deserves to be as huge as This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours.

Next on the Manics agenda is a remastered special edition of Know Your Enemy, which the band debuted at the Karl Marx Theatre, Havana, Cuba in 2001—Fidel Castro coining the phrase “Louder than war”, describing the gig’s soundcheck when he met the band. (Castro left halfway through the gig when he realised they weren’t playing Sleepflower.)

And Nicky has a solo jazz/indiepop album ready to mix. Really. You’ve been warned…

NHS gigs

But before all that, the little matter of gigs. The Manics are playing two massive sold out benefit shows in Cardiff for NHS charities in September (with free tickets for NHS staff the first night) before touring the new album. We all know Covid isn’t over though, and that’s playing on Nick’s mind:

“We’re worried for the audience as much as ourselves. I’m not affected anywhere near as much as those in events doing it for the love of it and enjoyment, employment, you name it. It’s heartbreaking, whether you’re a small venue somewhere or putting on a festival. They’ve been left out to dry.”

If you want an amazing working class band, writers, artists—here they are, folks.

· Scottish dates: 28 September at Edinburgh Usher Hall; 29 September at Dundee Fat Sam’s; and 5 October at Glasgow Barrowland. Get the album here

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