Album Review | Manic Street Preachers Share The Ultra Vivid Lament

With an album of widescreen melancholy pop Manic Street Preachers let light (and love) in.

My first Manics album was 1998’s This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, bought when I was 15, it had a pervasive melancholy and great sense of yearning (Welsh hiraeth) for something indefinable and as a landlocked Midlander that spoke volumes to me. That album used sonic landscapes to tell stories of love and loss; tragedy and reckoning, so for me it became a map of the troubled and restless mind I could relate to.

I feel The Ultra Vivid Lament shares much of this spirit and like This Is My Truth’s number one hit ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next‘, soaring guitars and choral backing vocals stride across the songs giving them a sense of infinite space and span.

The irrepressible sheen of the 21st century and its lack of (self) understanding is the creeping metaphor of TUVL. It is the lament of the album’s title, something at once both real and dreamlike, urgent and escapist. It’s the fuse that lit the burning need to live in the moment so that our lives are reduced a fleeting snapshot, filtered, experienced through the distance of a camera lens, appearing close enough to touch but somehow out of reach, so it is for the ageing veteran in the album single ‘The Secret He Had Missed’.

But at the same time TUVL is a plea for patience and understanding, the noble struggle of waiting and letting time unfurl before you, rather than rushing forward to meet it. This renewed musical attitude suggests a band both secure in their station but also unwilling to bend to the demands of a ruthlessly commercial art world that seems to prioritise surface impressions and empty rhetoric—with nothing behind it once we scratch the surface veneer. Lead single ‘Orwellian’ tackles this splintering of meaning head-on and the rising dominance of culture war clash:

“In sentences that dance and hide
The truth becomes a broken lie

[…]

The future fights the past
The books begin to burn”

The song’s title suggests we have not arrived at an Animal Farm or 1984 scenario, worse still, we have reached a bastardised version of Orwell’s dystopia, a utopian despair, at once the most liberal and progressive era of history but also the most repressive and fragmented leading to grey-areas of thought and self-deception on all sides. As Wire stated in a recent interview, our inability to compromise, to find common ground, will most likely be our undoing.

For me, the aching ballads of ‘Diapause’ and ‘Complicated Illusions’ manage to be equally mournful and rousing, that we can allow for our mistakes, but also remain open to forgiveness and hope. The need to reconcile with ourselves, in order to live, overrides the desire for recrimination:

“And in the rhythm of your voice/I find space to rejoice”

– ‘Complicated Illusions’

On ‘Don’t Let The Night Divide Us’ the Manics voice the common internalised rage over how “those boys from Eton”, the ultra-privileged and entitled millionaires who populate much of parliament, can escape any crisis or gaff, from Afghanistan, to the COVID pandemic, without seeming to lose votes. This heavy theme is set to a rollicking Stonesy-piano vibe that gallops along fiercely resulting in an oddly jolly chorus, but surely its singalong power is the very point? As ever this is the Manics wearing their hearts on their sleeves, elsewhere attacking the modern elite’s fear of the outside world beyond their incestuous borders:

“On the playing fields in exclusive clubs/And the people machines still making fools out of us”

This sentiment runs throughout the Manics discography, from 1999’s standalone single ‘The Masses Against The Classes’ and ’30 Years War’ (from 2011’s Rewind The Film album). Politically, the band have always pushed for change, but it seems that these wheels of revolution have done exactly that, spinning endlessly, out of sheer momentum and frustration, arriving back at the start and neoliberal capitalism prevails as the inevitable choice. Wire seems to voice some of this frustration on album closer ‘Afterending’ where: “Progress is a comfortable disease/That brought us to our knees” only to arrive at the same inertia.

“Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there.”

– George Orwell

Self-aware enough to know that pop and rock music have always been a plastic media—synthesized, edited, refined—the Manics manage to escape this trap themselves, and on TUVL create something very much alive. Adopting the glossy production and glacial faces of other recent Manics records, the journalist Dom Gourlay (Under The Radar) noted that the album sounds like the conclusion of a loose trilogy with Lifeblood and Futurology. The Manics implicitly removing themselves from the rat-race of mainstream chart fashions is present in the non-symbol diamond shape that dominates the artwork and videos of the record. Suggesting both the absence and the presence of the band, a punched out hole to be filled by the music itself, and our own imagination.

This releases the band from an easy trap, where Bradfield sings of “faces turned into icons” he echoes the pain of becoming a fixed object: a celebrity, a guitar hero, a controversy-seeking loud-mouth misanthrope, a martyr; and having that singular image pursuing them through a hall of shallow and fragmented mirrors, mere images, but still “deep enough to drown” [R. S. Thomas].

The Manics have always forced themselves into confrontation with the bleeding edge of the present, their records keenly aware of the world at large but maintaining some objective distance. Their common stance has been to always look back across the ruins and junk of 20th century pop and political culture, causing them to eventually dredge up their own band history, becoming another strand of that fractured continuum. This momentum has built into a rolling tide that often saw the Manics revisit/recycle key themes and events of their past, such that Manics songs could seem to have core constituent elements that risked the band lapsing into repetition.

Of course, no shadow has been cast further than the disappearance of Richey Edwards, or rather its aftermath. The first album as a trio, Everything Must Go was half composed of songs with Edwards’ lyrics, the cover art of Send Away The Tigers and Futurology’s ‘Walk Me To The Bridge’ reference the disappearance directly, and the album Journal For Plague Lovers resurrected a batch of brilliant ‘lost’ lyrics from a final ‘goodbye’ binder handed to the band as if it were will and testament.

Alongside many other lyrics Nicky Wire would continue to both mourn and celebrate the band’s fatal friend but on TUVL he only makes a more subtle, nuanced reference to band’s first era. On ‘Still Snowing In Sapporo’ Nicky Wire reclaims the memory of the band landing in snowy Japan in 1993, in his mind it is still snowing there, and this allows him to reflect upon the combined spirit of the Manics’ first musical thrust:

“The four of us against the world, against the world”

The great triumph of TUVL is that while it remains at core a Manics album, it is also feels like a genuine break from the band’s musical and historical past. A breath of fresh air, lighter and free of having to be “more rock”, or “more melodic”, it balances these elements uniquely, and much like The Holy Bible it finds its own self-contained language, escaping outside interference. The impressionistic stories within the songs are tighter than before and while they offer no resolution, they stay with you in the deceptively simple lines that stick in the mind more like poetry couplets than fragments of a song:

“I was singing to a troubled sky
She only shines with some borrowed light
I was praying to a godless sky
For the people still screaming inside”

– ‘HappyBoredAlone’

I found several Manics albums from the last twenty years or so challenging, interesting records, particularly Lifeblood, Plague Lovers…, and Futurology, but these were often punctuated by much more mainstream, middle-of-the-road records that, for me, did not sound like exemplary Manics albums, nor did they stand so well on their own.

Much of TUVL was composed solo by James Dean Bradfield on piano during lockdown and later refined by the band during the continuing pandemic, this has definitely brought a different tone to the music, less based upon riffs the songs flow, with broader, shifting melodies, bolstered by the electronic elements from earlier albums. The more disco-sounding bass runs and ornate piano lines evocative of ABBA appear throughout, shining through on ‘The Secret He Had Missed’. The production is really interesting as the more listens you give it the more strange and intriguing noises you pick up, it is an album that gradually reveals itself, refreshingly it doesn’t try too hard and uses shifts in tone above crushing volume and distorted guitars. TUVL bristles with invention and diversity: spaghetti western guitars, towering synths, and all stripes of piano styles, from back-door-bar-room to grand baroque.

In that spirit the album presents a similar break as Nicky Wire referenced with The Clash’s London Calling, a more diverse and eclectic record than the straight punk cut and thrust of their first two albums, but neither is TUVL a sprawling overlong album that, in pushing the boundaries, exceeds its reach. Sticking to a concise eleven tracks the album is focussed and the sharp sweep of the songs means that it never feels laboured or heavy, not that the record should be seen as a lightweight adjustment.

Its great strength lies in its pop savvy. The songs’ movements into strange middle-eights and interludes break up the verse-chorus, loud-quiet dogma, with many tracks ending neatly under the four-minute mark. James Dean Bradfield sings in fine voice weaving vocal melodies around Nicky Wire’s lyrics, more personal than ever before, that succeed in encouraging us to reflect upon his thoughts and feelings within ourselves.

The Ultra Vivid Lament is the album we need right now, a glorious reach to grapple with the present while breaking the Manics out of a singular identity so easily forced upon them. It’s their most engaged and vital album in a decade.

“For my voyage to begin to the end of my wound,
We heard the sea sound sing, we saw the salt sheet tell.”

– Dylan Thomas