Caragh Medlicott reviews The Ultra Vivid Lament, the 14th album from Manic Street Preachers.
Few acts are tougher to follow than your own… but then, the Manic Street Preachers are old hats by now. Once polemic post-punk icons invulnerable to the Britpop siren call, today, fourteen albums deep, the band continue to bob above rock ‘n’ roll waters with the buoyancy of an unshakable fanbase and the profound critical kudos accrued in a century elapsed. Written in COVID times, The Ultra Vivid Lament has all the sugar-coated cheer of a lockdown Christmas — at once merry and uncannily fatalistic (or, as Nicky Wire puts it, “The Clash playing ABBA”).
So, where do the poor, the othered and the disenfranchised turn when they’re rich, adored and long-standing on rock’s wall of fame? The Manics are hardly the first to grapple with this question, but they have, at least, been attempting to answer it for the first two decades of the twenty-first century. It’s not the switch from crashing guitar to glittering piano-driven melodies that rob The Ultra Vivid Lament of a lasting substantiality; it is, instead, a stasis of perspective. The sentiments are timely, but the execution adds little in the way of conviction; ‘Don’t let those boys from Eton / Suggest that we are beaten’.
Sonically, The Ultra Vivid Lament lets loose stadium pop-rock that harks back not only to ABBA, but also the atmospheric soundscapes of Echo And The Bunnymen with glimmers of Neil Diamond and just a dash of Roxy Music. The effect is more than a few catchy numbers set to twinkly, high-polish arrangements which, depending on your stomach for sloganeering, certainly set the foot-tapping.
Opening track ‘Still Snowing in Sapporo’ offers an ambient post-rock journey back to heyday Manics town, with its tender memory of a Japanese tour taken prior to the disappearance of guitarist Richey Edwards. James Dean Bradfield laments ‘it’s still snowing, snowing in Sapporo / Still breaking my heart / The four of us against the world’. Peaking much too early, this is arguably the apex of the album’s emotional tactility, a single pause of nostalgia amidst arm-linking, singalong rock-pop, which, despite Wires’ assertions, is generally about as iconoclast as an ABBA tribute act.
Follow up (and lead single) ‘Orwellian’ has something of Arcade Fire in its cascadingly frenetic piano opening. Titled for our tumultuous times, little depth follows as Bradfield sings cheerfully ‘The future fights the past, the books begin to burn / I’ll walk you through the apocalypse / where you and me could co-exist’. So begins the lyrical theme permeating the whole of The Ultra Vivid Lament — that of a broad, melancholy subject matter draped in the lusty velvet of sonic joviality. Occasionally, it works; ‘The Secret He Had Missed’ with Sunflower Beam’s Julia Cummings soars with beatific, nihilist joy, as does the album’s finale ‘Afterending’. Yet some of the album’s most banal aphorisms (‘I used to make sense / but now I am confused’) brush uncomfortably close to self-parody.
Speaking of his experience working on the album in lockdown, Bradfield told the BBC, “everything felt like a living, waking dream” something he goes onto dub a “snowglobe moment”. I couldn’t think of a more befitting metaphor. The Ultra Vivid Lament, for all its generalised prettiness, ultimately feels isolated by its own gleeful nihilism. We might watch the confetti fall once, twice, but at a certain point the impact is dulled by repetition.
The Ultra Vivid Lament is streaming now on Spotify.