Album Review: Manic Street Preachers – The Ultra Vivid Lament


Manic Street Preachers The Ultra Vivid Lament artwork

You can almost hear the gentle fizz of expensive champagne and the whispered commentary; ‘Well, they had a good run, shifted a lot of units when it mattered, were they ever built to last this long?’. The banner in the room reads Happy Retirement Manic Street Preachers! and the year is somewhere in the future.

That may be a fantasy, but few bands throw themselves into the grip of an existential crisis more than the Welsh trio each time they release new work, and the introspection preceding The Ultra Vivid Lament has been no less scathingly honest than before.

Maybe they have a point; never exactly The Rolling Stones, being reasonable you wouldn’t blame James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore for jacking it all in anyway.

The game has changed of course. Where before there was spontaneity, now the three-year gap between this, their 14th album and 2018’s Resistance Is Futile is as much down to COVID’s prohibition on playing live and the modern toss of having to wait for its availability on vinyl.

You sense too (cynically) that some of bass player and spokesman Nicky Wire’s faint criticisms of their previous effort are an output of the now semi-traditional ‘New product! Better than old product!’ media playbook. In fact, by nearly any metric you choose to employ, it was great.

Bradfield for his part has spent time writing on a piano, whilst Wire has faced up to the death of both of his parents alongside lockdown after lockdown and delivered some of his most personal lyrics yet.

Drawing on a musical frame of reference paying homage to ABBA (a nod to Dancing Queen originally was made as far back as Motorcycle Emptiness) which then extends to pseudo-New Poppers like Echo & The Bunnymen and Simple Minds, atmospherically this is the sort of melancholia last heard on 2004’s Lifeblood.

Opener Still Snowing In Sapporo draws heavily on it, a stoking of memories real or dreamt of the band’s 1993 Japanese tour on which they were still a quartet; ‘How could four become so strong/Yet break and leave too soon’, Bradfield croons, before finishing with, ‘The four of us against the world’, as if any further emphasis on the void Richey Edwards’ death still leaves were required.

Also revived is an old school weakness for duets which at times has made for some of their best material. Here the ultra-rusted pipes of grunge survival specialist Mark Lanegan bring a world-weary quality to Blank Diary Entry – an even world-wearier song – whilst Julia Cumming of New York psych-rockers Sunflower Bean makes for a more absorbing foil on The Secret He Had Missed.

Unsurprisingly for men now fully in middle age, perspective colours thinking: on Quest For Ancient Colour, Bradfield admits, ‘I used to make sense/But now I am confused’, whilst a capriciously divided Britain flounders on Don’t Let The Night Divide (for night, read right, allegedly).

Mostly though these are songs looking for another gear. This feels like kicking a national treasure, but only once do pulses start to race; the retro Scandi-heaven of Orwellian is a bullseye in their grand anthemic tradition, blessedly tinkling piano squared by some much needed trademark guitar scree.

That was always the problem with ABBA. The more Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and the other one sang about intimacy, relationships, and emotions, the less they sounded like they meant it.

The Ultra Vivid Lament channels curiosity and disillusionment, but it’s dignified, not vital. Maybe time and circumstances mitigate though – and as the gold watch beckons knowing them, knowing you, it’s the best they could do.

Andy Peterson

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