Twenty-nine years ago, the Manic Street Preachers released their debut LP, Generation Terrorists. Now they release their 14th: The Ultra Vivid Lament.
What has changed? What is different about this new offering? In discussing this new release, frontman James Dean-Bradfield said, “A lot of life is in the middle ground – be it culturally, politically, personally. The spirit of compromise makes a band work… As cool and as extreme as you want to be when you’re young, at some point, you start realising that the middle ground is where the battle is fought.”
Is this the end of the Manic Street Preachers as a glam-punk band as we know it? Song “Complicated Illusions” repeats the lyric “I defend the middle ground….” There is a more sombre and genteel approach which James has described as “the element of being lost in a snowglobe”, where the band has opted to open songs on piano instead of guitar.
Opening with the six-minute “Snowing in Sapporo”, the Manics take us back to 1993 when they were on their Japanese tour. This dreamscape doesn’t capture the sound of Generation Terrorists or Gold Against The Soul but offers a soothing cacophony with mild and discreet EDM elements which invite the acoustic guitars and the occasional brief electric guitar riff to join in. This theme continues with “Orwellian”, where Nicky Wire writes lyrics sung by Bradfield to the state of affairs geo-politics finds itself in with by opening with “We live in Orwellian times” and then adroitly explores a general breakdown in relationships and communication with “Words wage war, meanings being missed. I’ll walk you through the apocalypse….”
This haunting lyrical theme continues, but the music backdrop accompanying it takes an unexpected turn on “The Secret He Had Missed” by openly borrowing elements from ABBA, particularly the piano riffs from “Waterloo”. The haunting message is not eroded thanks to vocals from Julia Cumming of Sunflower Bean. This collaboration reaches its crescendo as Bradfield and Cumming sing the concluding verse, “Walls defeated by the sea. Still resonate an imperfect dream. The whispering waves still cleanse and clean. They can’t wipe away what you’ve seen”.
“Blank Diary Entry” features Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age) on vocals, who adds a haunting cohen-esque dimension to this folksy yet, EDM subtly tinged fatalist dystopia about seeking consolation in machines that see “no way out of this unholy mess”. “Into the Waves of Love”, whilst also folksy, is less unnerving thanks to the comfortable melody of Spanish guitar, piano and bass about how “silence is a liberation”. This comfortable cacophony is further enriched with traditional organs and a powerful group of female backing singers.
The epiphany of “realising that the middle ground is where the battle is fought” is demystified on “Don’t Let the Night Divide Us”, which discusses equality and being cautious about divide and conquer politics and ideas across this piano-led, rock song where green shoots of guitar chords come closer to the centrefold. For those looking to trace the Manics The Ultra Vivid Lament back to their glam-punk origins, this thread is found across the penultimate track “Happy Bored Alone” which does what it says; describes the joys of being “Happy Bored Alone”.
From start to finish, The Ultra Vivid Lament was conceived as an instant-pop, dream world soundscape which both soothes and unnerves without the necessity of the punk fuelled anger of a lions roar. The adrenaline-fuelled glam-punk lion’s roar can be heard copious times with imagination and passion in so many ways across the Manics back catalogue, which will undoubtedly be played again when the band go back on tour; hence there was no need to repeat that formula across this album. Whilst another glam-punk album could have been overbearing, a glam-punk cameo will always be welcomed and sacrosanct.