Manic Street Preachers often feel like an unstoppable force, a facet of British music that come rain or shine will always prevail. A constant in times of increasing change, their heavily politicised, bitingly personal music surges through a unique catalogue, one whose latest addition – the excellent full length ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ – currently tops the UK album charts.
A song cycle of palpable ambition and force, ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ moves from despair at the splintering of progressive circles amid a social media enable culture war to potent swipes at Hard Right authoritarian government; yet it does so with incredible beauty and grace, and no small degree of melody. Crafted against the spectre of lockdown and seemingly never-ending pandemic, ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ is imbued with a light that is often overlooked in Manic Street Preachers, a verve and invention that plucks from classic pop – ABBA is a clear influence, as are gloriously ambitious 80s Scottish types The Associates – while being handed a widescreen veneer.
- - -
- - -
Speaking to Clash on a summer’s day a few weeks before the album’s release, singer James Dean Bradfield points to the band’s work ethic, and those endless days in the studio. Even amidst the depths of lockdown, Manic Street Preachers were still – no matter how slowly – moving forwards. “We always work in our studio,” he says. “Sometimes you’ll go in, and you’ll be noodling on a soundtrack that’ll never happen. Some days you’re noodling on a Manics song that’ll never see the light of day. Some days you’ll noodling on a cover, just bashing it out. But then other days, it’ll be something more serious. In other words, there's always something going on in the studio. Nothing's ever finished. There's always something going on.”
Sat in a hotel room with BBC Wales beaming on the television screen, the singer is a constant source of energy – not that he pauses to check the finer details. “1990 and 2021 seem to have merged into one another!” he laughs when Clash presses him on aspects of the album’s timing. “I’m 52 years old now, so it’s hard to keep track of that Roladeck!”
One thing remains the same, however; the songs hinge on the partnership between James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire. “When Nick gives me a lyric there’s always a collage attached to it, or a picture. ‘The Secret He Had Missed’ immediately felt like a storyline – so, in my head, I was hearing the Rachmaninoff thing that ABBA do on the piano. These little rhythms come into your head and it just comes out, like a domino effect. There's nothing magical about it. There's not even really a process. It's just sitting on your own and just going: oh, what about this? What about that?”
The piano comes to the fore on the new record. It’s an instrument James has always tinkered with, but it took lockdown for him to truly unlock it. “Nothing is ever done at the expense of something else,” he insists. “Most guitarists in bands, you know, like to think that they can do a bit of drumming; most guitarists in bands like to think they can spray themselves around all the instruments and make a good hash of it, because we're fucking egotistical dickheads! So I’d always had a little bit of an idea about the piano.”
“I'd started taking the piano playing a little bit more seriously in the studio. Then lockdown came, and I thought, I've got to focus on something, otherwise,I'm gonna go up the fucking wall like everybody else. I kind of had to do something to keep my own brain going. So we'd inherited a piano in the house. I thought, OK, so this terrible thing has happened, but I'm going to try and get something good out of it. I started writing on it. I started taking it seriously as an instrument for the first time.”
He continues: “Playing a new instrument just opens up chords that you thought were exhausted to you, chords you thought were just done… and you suddenly realise that you were being really lazy and presumptuous. But it does take another instrument to make those chord shine sometimes.”
- - -
- - -
Another marked factor in the essence of ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ is Nicky Wire’s continuing evolution as a lyricist. Songs such as ‘Still Snowing In Sapporo’ are extraordinarily beautiful; others – such as ‘Orwellian’ or ‘Don’t Let The Night Divide Us’ – are capable of approaching complex, nuanced debates with remarkable precision. For some time now, the Welsh bassist has been drawn to visual art over music, and there’s a striking visual sense to the band’s new project.
“I think he finds both beauty and ambiguity in art,” James notes. “Because once you start standing by an absolute, then that leads to some kind of demagoguery. In this day and age, everybody's saying “you're right, you're wrong”. And I suppose what he loves in art, is that there is room for debate. There's room for you to explore how sometimes left and right just merge into each other. And sometimes good and evil can actually be very hard to discern from each other.”
For all its lyrical complexity, however, ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ is rooted in a melodic openness, a sense that better must – and will – come. “Look, we've just come to a terrible time. And let's face it, we're kind of still on the precipice of falling back into it, it can easily happen,” he notes. “I'm not 20 or 21, I'm not an nihilistic musician that can just say: fuck you, we're gonna give you some more, here's another fucked up film! And perhaps that's the difference between us without Richey and what, perhaps, we miss. He sometimes he would nail it to the wall, it'd be like: no respite, keep going, tell this truth. I liked the balance that it gave the band, absolutely, and it led to ‘The Holy Bible’, but we couldn't keep doing ‘The Holy Bible’ because I couldn't keep listening. I couldn't keep being in the middle of that maelstrom and having to do that all the time. I liked the mixture of everything. And that includes the hope.”
“I think that the bottom line is, we've all got families, we've all softened a bit. We can't deny that,” he smiles. “Memory has become quite valuable to us. We've talked about things, not because we've been sentimental but because we want to have that feeling again. Sentimentality is just about bathing yourself in a memory. I think that's represented in the music. You're just thinking, I want this music to live, to breathe, to fly a bit, and I want it to land safely… and that's not a revolutionary standpoint. I understand that.”
James’ passion for what he does shines through each sentence. Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cummings appears on the album – a female vocal foil who follows in the footsteps of Kylie Minogue, Traci Lords, and Nina Persson – after James caught the band playing live in Cardiff. “If we'd found this band when we were like 15 years old we would have fucking followed them to the end of the Earth!” he exclaims. “I went to see them at the Globe in Cardiff and they were fucking brilliant. Three hundred people there, small venue, and fuckin hell man, they were cool. They really were.”
- - -
- - -
Throwing a few names around, the conversation turns toward IDLES. A band whose political convictions have always been evident in their music, the group found themselves at the centre of a backlash in 2020, with acts such as sleaford mods and the Fat White Family picking apart the contradictions within IDLES.
“I felt for them,” he nods. “Not that they need my sympathy. But they’re a completely different band to us, and they approach things in a completely different way. We’ve never come close to saying: vote for this person. We’ve worn our hearts on our sleeves, but we’ve never done that. It’s like when all these American bands play shows for the Democratic Party – we would never do that. The only photo opp we’ve ever done was with Fidel Castro, and we had no choice in the matter – he just came into our fucking dressing room, and there was nothing we could do to stop it. But y’know, he’s one of those people in life – like Muhammed Ali, like Bruce Lee – there are posters of him on walls all over the world. So I enjoyed the ridiculousness of it.”
Now passing their fourteenth studio album, Manic Street Preachers may have mellowed slightly but their words are now tempered with the force of experience. Closing, we discuss the ongoing culture war, and the band’s despair at the splintering of the Left. Teens during the Miner’s Strike, the Welsh group are intensely aware of the raw human cost Right Wing hegemony can exact on working class life. Unity, however we find it, seems to be the answer.
“Inevitably, you’ve got to get the middle classes to vote to change anything. You’ve got to come from the middle ground. If you leave the middle ground empty, something horrible always fills it. And at the moment, it’s the Tory party - because they wake up every morning and they go, oh, the others are still fighting culture wars with each other. It’s not good politics - it’s just divisive politics.”
“I would never tell anyone who to vote for but I will definitely tell you that I’m not voting for the Tories and I’m definitely not voting for UKIP. If we keep arguing with each other, letting the middle ground be sucked up like a vacuum by the Tories, then we’ll never get anywhere. Let’s get our act together.”
- - -
- - -
'The Ultra Vivid Lament' is out now.
Words: Robin Murray