No one expected this to happen. Well, to start with no one really expected Manic Street Preachers to still be in existence and making records thirty years after they initially promised to split up on making one culture-obliterating album, but also that on the release of their 14th studio album Manic Street Preachers would achieve a number 1 album for only the second time in their career. That’s exactly what transpired last week with The Ultra Vivid Lament, an album about grief, about political nomadism, about losing conviction. And as is regularly the case for latter day Manics, when the subject matter gets truly gritty and controversial the glitter is laid on thicker, the melodies made lighter, bordering on pure pop sheen.
The Ultra Vivid Lament can’t help be framed by current events – the aftermath of Brexit and it’s affect on UK politics, blurring the left and right wing divide, the isolation and boredom imposed by COVID-19 lockdown, the omnipresent nu-propaganda found in social media and personal events in the life of lyricist Nicky Wire – the sudden death of both of his parents. Deep and painful subject matter they decided to soundtrack with overt Abba influence and songs written chiefly on James Dean Bradfield’s late neighbour’s piano. The lyrical lamentation is strong, the melody is gleaming and more ultra vivid than they have ever been before.
The album is one of two halfs, part full throttle polished rock songs, part C-86 piano led indie that wouldn’t be out of place amongst Know Your Enemy’s experimental reaches. There is an icy, glacial quality holding it all together. Still Snowing In Sapporo is of the former kin and a heart tugger from the off. Much like Lifeblood’s first track 1985, it maps out good intention for the rest of the album. Discussing an image of the band as a four piece in Japan, 1993, before the horror of the Holy Bible era and Richey Edwards’ breakdown unravelled, accepting the tragic loss of their missing friend and all the wide-eyed optimism they fizzed with in the early years, yet in the refrain “it couldn’t last without the hurt” admitting that loss as the bedrock of their success. They have written about Richey Edwards before but this song feels like they’re grieving all over again.
When promo began for The Ultra Vivid Lament Orwellian was the first song the band discussed, comparing it to If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next and it certainly exists in the same soundscape. Wide, expansive and drenched in echo, the haunting anthem tries to pick apart the confusing fuckery happening in the public arena, how delicate living memory is and how easily history can be rewritten. For the first time on the album the piano comes right to the forefront with Bradfield still managing to fit one of his mighty guitar solos in before the end.
A clear radio ready standout single featuring Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming in full chanteuse mode, The Secret He Had Missed looks at the lives of sibling welsh artists Augustus and Gwen John and the polar opposite lives they lead. Quest For Ancient Colour looks at uncertainty, delving into personal and world history to try and recover some design for life and coming up with nothing but more confusion.
The latter half of the record is soft and breezy feathered with piano and acoustic guitar, like much 80s lo-fi indie – McCarthy or The June Brides. Yet in places the words are the most firey and revolutionary of their entire stockpile. In Don’t Let The Night Divide Us they demand the listener “Reject all propaganda”, that “Vengeance will be yours and mine”, “This is a warning, not a prayer”, aiming their ire directly at the elite, as they did on the brilliant 30 Year War from Rewind The Film “Don’t let those boys from Eton suggest that we are beaten”, focussing on the universal promise of dawn always arriving after a long cold night.
On Diapause James Dean Bradfield’s voice becomes an apparition amid a sparse, piano led landscape of grief and shouting at an empty sky. Complicated Illusions would sit easily on Everything Must Go if it wasn’t for all the magnificent synths.
Into The Waves Of Love is the least Manics song the band have created. Musically it is fey and the words read as a rejection of all the band previously held central to their philosophy of culture, alienation, boredom and despair, being left with nothing to do but throw themselves into the ebbing and flowing tides of love. If to prove how much of a departure the song is, a soul singer takes us through to the final chorus. Blank Diary Entry includes the vocals of Mark Lanegan, sounding like Johnny Cash on his cover of Hurt and is the most rootsy number on the album, creating gold from the idea of running out of inspiration.
With the words “I saw the smile of a dying hero, I saw the tears of a love that’s leaving”, Happy Bored Alone further explores grief and the resignation someone feels when a loved one has gone and the griever has found peace with the loss. Afterending considers COVID-19, clapping for the NHS, the fall of EU flags and the knocking down of slave owners statues, living through a revolutionary time of change and having no idea if what comes next will be positive, the final notes playing deceptively out like a sing along on a sinking ship.
On Gold Against The Soul b-side Donkeys the Manics sang “Put some lipstick on, at least your lies will be pretty”. The Welsh three piece have gone on to keep a similar ethos in mind throughout their entire career and on The Ultra Vivid Lament it is especially evident – the uglier and more difficult the message, the more gorgeous, shimmering and lipstick covered the pop song needs to be. The fact that this is their most shimmering album yet screams volumes about the message behind it.