Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Manics Top The Charts With The Ultra Vivid Lament

Everybody’s favourite left-wing Welsh emo-punks, the Manic Street Preachers, have only gone and smashed it, haven’t they? Studio album number fourteen is politically on-point, musically gorgeous, and lyrically a personal tour de force from the Manics. Is this their best album in 30 years? (Spoiler: yes.)

An ominous electronic throb, like a reverbed, off-the-hook phone – then James Dean Bradfield, at first echoing, distorted, and then smooth against an acoustic riff and the scratches of muted electric guitar strings. ‘Still Snowing In Sapporo’ sets wistful memories of 1993 (“How could four become so strong / Yet break and leave too soon”) over a musically stripped-down verse.


An electric major seventh chord explosion Britpops us out of our earnest reminiscences and into a defiantly euphoric melodic rock chorus: “It’s still snowing / snowing in Sapporo / Still breaking in my heart / The four of us against the world”.


The track continues to alternate between restrained melancholy and expansive emo-rock for a luxuriant six minutes, before fading into the outro’s electronic bell-like aether, shot through with threads of metropolitan Japanese speech, “desu ne?”


The catchy lead single, ‘Orwellian’, is musically bright and lyrically dark. The song gets straight to the point; “We live in Orwellian times”, it says, and immediately sets about explicating the polarized crypto-fascist horrorshow of the post-truth era. The lyrical pace doubles in the chorus, intensifying the overwhelm, until we are offered a faint ray of ironic sunshine in the chorus at the end of the world: “I’ll walk you through the apocalypse / Where me and you could co-exist”.


The follow-up single, ‘The Secret He Had Missed’, is the next track on the album. A duet with Julia Cumming with a disco bass line, this song calls back to the double-tracked vocals of ‘Little Baby Nothing’ and to the melodic contour of the chorus of ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’ with Nina Persson.


‘Quest For Ancient Colour’ is not the tale of a medieval knight and his lost pride flag, but an existential meditation on accepting uncertainty. “I had a very bad dream / The main actor in it was me”, sings Bradfield to his piano, in a nostalgic ballad that then snaps into a gorgeously harmonized, dreamy, light country rock number, and then back again to a piano ballad. The second verse packs heavy concepts and dense imagery into a supermassive singularity: “Negative capability / Ran straight through me / My soul a suburban sinkhole / A vast brutal urban sprawl”. Add a bit of marching snare, some slide guitar, and back to the chorus. In music and vocal style, it’s like a latter-day Elton John homage to Bohemian Rhapsody.


‘Don’t Let The Night Divide Us’ pairs acute political criticism with soaring, expansive pop rock, as is the way of the Manics. “Don’t let those boys from Eton / Suggest that we are beaten”.


‘Diapause’ (a period of arrested development) is your new word for the day, and you should aim to use it whenever possible. Which, frankly, will not be very often. Lyrically, this song seems to be about regret and the tension between moving on and not moving on: how to curate your ghosts.


‘Complicated Illusions’ is a radio-friendly ballad with a crunchy bass line and chords and lyrics straight out of Benny and Björn’s playbook ­– intensely bittersweet emotional complexity packaged in a familiar yet inventive structure. “Time turns itself to stone / Nothing left to lose and nothing left to win” – they’ve somehow managed to out-ABBA ABBA.


Now, enter the Manics’ moody indie-pop mosh pit. It’s ‘Into The Waves Of Love’, and suddenly everyone is dancing away the nihilism of youth, and replacing it with the mental hygiene of adulthood: “Don’t try to sell me a universal truth / I’m all given up on listening to you.”


In the next track, that’s not Nick Cave’s darkly intense voice, but Mark Lanegan’s, bringing some deliciously “Disciplined desirеs and toxic agendas” to ‘Blank Diary Entry’. The refrain line hits us with a casually surprising key change, dialling up to full-Bowie for the outro: alternating between two chords half a tone apart, and rattling with reverbed guitar and minimal in-the-pocket drums. The unsettling imagery (“In a garden full of locusts / Pain was a crying man / Wrapped in several kinds of skin / Seeking consolation in machines”) and the rhythmic pattern of the words also seem to echo Bowie’s penultimate song, ‘Blackstar’.


‘Happy Bored Alone’ contains the line “I saw the smile of a dying hero / Saw the tears of a love that’s leaving”. The grandiose guitar moves are relatively few and far between in this album, which Bradfield composed primarily on his Covid hobby instrument (the piano), but this track treats us to some gnarly scalar excursions.


‘Afterending’ smashes you in the heart like a sledgehammer. It takes the chords and reverbed guitar from ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ and transmutes it all into a sparkling psychedelic pop march. Experience the death of the ego as you contemplate being and nothingness: “Sail into the abyss with me / After ending and after belief / After tomorrow after the flood / After ending from below and above”.


So that’s ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ in all its glorious 11 tracks.  


It’s the most musically accessible and lyrically personal album by the Manics in years, possibly ever. It deserves to sell 16 million copies. Completists will be delighted / outraged to learn that the Japanese version includes an extra two tracks, and the Deluxe Edition has a second disc of demo versions (also on Spotify).


Deluxe highlights include the Merseyside acoustic folk version of ‘Complicated Illusions’, a beautiful acoustic version of ‘Blank Diary Entry’, as well as two Nicky Wire home demo tracks.


Right. Let’s play that whole thing again immediately.




John Weston


Image: The Ultra Vivid Lament’ Official Album Artwork


No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment Here;