Manic Street Preachers can’t help looking back and within. It’s written into their DNA. When they burst onto the scene 30 years ago as “a mess of eyeliner and spraypaint,” they were steeped in the Clash, 1960s girl groups, and glam rock—even as they took up the mantle of the Futurist movement, felt like a living breathing version of the Durutti Column’s sandpaper record sleeve, and looked to a new order as they exclaimed “we destroy rock and roll.” Their fourteenth album, The Ultra Vivid Lament leans into that ingrained tendency towards introspection, documenting loss (bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire lost both of his parents in recent years) and a yearning for direction in the face of overwhelming sadness. It’s a curious album. Guitarist/lead singer James Dean Bradfield wrote most of the songs on piano instead of guitar, which lends the album a distinctly fresh sound, a joyous melancholy influenced by Echo & the Bunnymen’s knack for blending grandeur and gloom, that fits snugly with Wire’s lyrics about grief, solipsism, and the disintegration of truth in a post-truth world.
Lead single “Orwellian” may have a title that suggests bad sixth form poetry, but it skillfully shows off the album’s sonic backbone—wiggly analog synths and plangent pianos, equal parts Abba and Rachmaninoff. The effortlessly melodic tune is married to lyrics that channel Orwell’s ideas about fostering lack of trust in an objective truth (“flood the zone with shit”, to quote a recent master of misinformation) as one of the foundations that authoritarianism is built upon.
The future fights the past, the books begin to burn
I’ll walk you through the apocalypse
Where me and you could co-exist
“The Secret He Had Missed” further ups the tempo and delves into a corner of Welsh history, exploring the dynamic between early 20th century painters, and vastly different siblings, Augustus and Gwen John. This sort of cultural deep dive turned into a compelling, catchy song is a Manics specialty, and it makes the Abba-esque number one of the record’s highlights. It’s especially attention grabbing as a duet—guest vocals by Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming nimbly weave in and out of Bradfield’s vocals and twirling guitars.
Tucked away in the middle of the album, “Complicated Illusions” holds what could be one of the album’s thesis statements—“time turns itself to stone … I defend the middle ground.” Recently, Wire has spoken of how age has steered him towards being a champion of the middle of the road. Not as license to revel in mediocrity, but as centrism as a bulwark against the ever-widening chasm between extremes. It’s an unpopular stance, but someone has to keep alive the idea that a perpetually warring “us and them” isn’t a predetermined end state for society. It’s a thought echoed in the scintillating “Don’t Let the Night Divide Us”—“don’t let those boys from Eton suggest that we are beaten”—and driven home by a passionate vocal and searing guitar solo from Bradfield.
It also wouldn’t be a Manics album without a sense of contradiction. The Ultra Vivid Lament is often both exuberant and grief-stricken; quietly seeking inner peace and loudly, unrepentantly crotchety. The bright, anthemic “The Quest for Ancient Colour” searches for the prismatic streaks of light that used to brighten a now gray heart, while the guitar/piano jangle of “Into the Waves of Love” is reminiscent of R.E.M., and hopefully suggests that there are still arms worth throwing ourselves into. “Happy Bored Alone” sounds downright gleeful at the prospect of being left the hell alone, as it breaks into a huge piano-punctuated chorus and an outburst of patented Bradfield guitar heroics. Meanwhile, “Diapause,” which sounds like walking through the misty ruins of a Welsh castle, is heavy with mourning, and speaks of the barriers we build around our hearts to protect them from pain, but that also ensure we remain isolated.
I mapped out a journey to reach my broken heart
Before I even started the plan began to fall apart
I’ve built so many walls to keep these feelings true
I’ve burnt so many bridges but not the one that leads to you
That song’s aching loss is echoed in the epic album opener “Still Snowing in Sapporo,” where Wire looks back on the band’s first trip to Japan in the early 1990s. It views youthful optimism and memories of their long-missing, sorely missed friend and bandmate Richey Edwards through VHS videotape tinted glasses. It’s a song that expertly illustrates the double-edged sword of nostalgia, a force that is once a comfort and a morass to get stuck in.
The Ultra Vivid Lament isn’t the first Manics album to peer unflinchingly inward, but it’s remarkable within their discography for how deeply it sinks into the plush couch of the world within ourselves. Yet, at the same time, it’s a record informed by an obsessive search for reconciliation, and that yearns to connect to truths both personal and universal. “Sail into the abyss with me,” as Wire asks in the beautifully plaintive album closer “Afterending.” As many of us continue to grapple with a sense that the world has been irrevocably changed by social media, partisanship, and climate change, and as we search for meaning in what is left, and is to come, it’s comforting to know the Manics are still here to offer company on the journey. | Mike Rengel