Album: The Ultra Vivid Lament
Artist: Manic Street Preachers
Released: September 10th, 2021
Highlights: Still Snowing in Sapporo, The Secret He Had Missed, Into the Waves of Love, Afterending
Despite having both the respect of most rock aficionados, especially those from the United Kingdom, and a long solid discography that now gains its fourteenth entry, the Manic Street Preachers were never groundbreaking from a musical standpoint. Starting with their hard rocking debut, “Generation Terrorists”, the band initially allowed their inflammatory political stance and vicious lyrical themes to be the defining traits of their work, and with the unbelievable talent of James Dean Bradfield to turn his bandmates’ turbulent free-flowing words into catchy songs, the boys from Wales were quick to become an explosive sensation. Yet, even if the Manic Street Preachers were never musical revolutionaries, their lengthy career has at least allowed them to show enough talent to eventually drop their original punk-guerrilla demeanor in favor of varied aesthetics.
As such, especially as they grew older and tamer, the band branched out; and Bradfield, who is responsible for the tunes alongside drummer Sean Moore, proved that more than the leader of a passionate political band, he is a bonafide pop rock songwriter of notable skill. With that ability, the Manic Street Preachers have been able to do a bit of everything, including operating as outsiders in the Britpop scene (“Everything Must Go”); making the usual album packed with wild stylistic detours (“Know Your Enemy”); going into glossy turn-of-the-century alternative rock (“Lifeblood”); betting on mostly acoustic instrumentation (“Rewind the Film”); and producing a record centered on electronic experimentation (“Futurology”). “The Ultra Vivid Lament”, the group’s latest work, is yet another link on this chain of rhythmic variations, with the Manic Street Preachers embracing lush piano rock.
Given “The Ultra Vivid Lament” is slathered with a layer of shiny gloss, the kind of music it packs is not exactly unprecedented for the band; in fact, comparisons with “Lifeblood”, from 2004, are pretty much inevitable. And since that album is, among fans, one of the most divisive entries of the group’s catalog (with some hating it for its excessive polish and others loving it for its strong songwriting), “The Ultra Vivid Lament” is unlikely to be received very differently. Nevertheless, perhaps as a consequence of the fact Bradfield composed most of the tunes on his piano rather than by using his guitar, there is a notable gap between the two records, because this 2021 release is a considerably quieter affair than its 2004 sibling.
It is not that “The Ultra Vivid Lament” is an album of introspective piano ballads. Quite on the contrary, most tracks on the record have that energetic forward motion that has always been characteristic of the Manic Street Preachers. But with Bradfield’s guitar clearly taking a backseat to the piano and with the music exhibiting a finely produced sparkle, “The Ultra Vivid Lament” sees the band flirting with pop more strongly than ever, to the point all the glitter has led many to claim the clearest musical influence on the record is none other than ABBA; more precisely, the quartet’s expertly crafted piano pop, not their disco leanings. To an extent, giving “The Ultra Vivid Lament” such a label is dangerously reductionist since, most certainly, that attitude was prompted by the first singles, “Orwellian” and “The Secret He Had Missed”, which do get very close to the signature sonority of the Swedish icons; far more than any other tracks of the work. However, the fact this evaluation of the album is not too far off the mark is a good indication of what the Manic Street Preachers are going for here.
The new artistic course makes at least one victim: the invariably gripping guitar acrobatics of Bradfield. They are by all means here and their quality remains excellent, but save for the one in “Still Snowing in Sapporo”, the more subdued tones of these spotlight moments take away some of the energy Bradfield usually brings to the forefront. Yet, even with its tendency towards piano pop, “The Ultra Vivid Lament” is still a Manic Street Preachers album through and through. There is the initially quiet introspective cut that develops into a sweeping rocker (“Still Snowing in Sapporo”), the catchy political anthem (“Orwellian”), the radio-friendly pop rock duet (“The Secret He Had Missed”), the melancholic ballads (“Diapause” and “Afterending”), and the songs with choruses that are so easy, natural, and effective it is shocking to realize they had not been written before (“Complicated Illusions” and “Into the Waves of Love”). Aside from Bradfield’s unmistakable fingertips in melody and structure, the other component that brings the Manic Street Preachers stamp to “The Ultra Vivid Lament” is, of course, the writing of Nicky Wire.
Based on the feelings evoked by his usually poetic imagery, it is easy to conclude the bassist is tired; not because the lyrics are poor, which is not the case, but due to how he frequently alludes to a worn out state of mind. Although many of the tunes are vague when it comes to revealing the source of that fatigue, the fact “The Ultra Vivid Lament” often nods to political losses and polarization makes the album come off as the band’s reaction to the current political climate of their home and of the world as well, and that seems to be the main cause of Nicky’s tiredness. He watches facts being ignored and words being twisted (“Orwellian”), he talks about forged desires and toxic agendas (“Blank Diary Entry”), and – as an older man – he sees himself defending the middle ground and remembering the battles he has lost in the past (“Complicated Illusions”).
Some may argue that given their status as a fiery political band, which was mostly built on the early days of their career, maybe the Manic Street Preachers could have come up with a more earth-shattering response for a time of such turmoil even if they are now older and much more mature than the boys who wrote “Generation Terrorists” in 1992. But, in the end, there does seem to be a glimmer of hope. Showing there is still a little of the left-wing rebel inside him, Nicky asks those around him to keep on fighting while saying the elite, represented by the boys from Eton, will not win (“Don’t Let the Night Divide Us”), which indicates that he may be tired and worried, but that he is far from being defeated. Sure, that is far from being a grand statement and, backed by glossy piano rock, the message may end up being somewhat diluted. However, when it is all said and done, the Manic Street Preachers know they cannot change the world on their own, but they can influence the general outlook by being among the hands responsible for a far greater push; and, in that sense, “The Ultra Vivid Lament” fits the bill just right.
Musically, the album is far from spectacular. “Quest for Ancient Color”, “Don’t Let the Night Divide Us”, “Black Diary Entry”, and “Happy Bored Alone” are melodically uninspired, and in the case of the third one, the result is a huge disappointment considering it features the stellar vocal talent of Mark Lanegan. Moreover, the record’s musical proximity to “Lifeblood”, which is stronger in terms of songwriting, means it can feel like either a retread or a moment of stagnation. Nonetheless, “The Ultra Vivid Lament” has enough strong tracks to qualify – at least – as a pleasant listen, and although its turn towards piano pop has the potential to alienate some, it can equally attract a few and show the Manic Street Preachers still have a few kicks in them, even if they are softer and poppier.