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Orwellian Times: On Manic Street Preachers' 'The Ultra Vivid Lament' - PopMatters, 5th November 2021

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Orwellian Times: On Manic Street Preachers' 'The Ultra Vivid Lament
Publication: PopMatters
Date: Friday 5th November 2021
Writer: Mathijs Peters


Manic Street Preachers’ The Ultra Vivid Lament is driven by George Orwell’s aim to make political writing into art.

In his 1946 essay ‘Why I Write’, George Orwell reflects on the different aims and goals of literary authors. He postulates that, besides the need to make a living, there are four general motives for writing. The first three concern ‘sheer egoism’, ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’, and ‘historical impulse’, the latter of which he defines as the ‘desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity’ (Orwell 2003: 5). It is on the fourth motive, which he describes as follows, that Orwell focuses primarily in the essay:

Political purpose – using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. (Orwell 2003: 5)

These four motives, Orwell goes on, ‘war against one another’ and are different in each person and in each historical age (2003: 5). Within himself, he observes, the fourth motive gained a hegemonic position, mainly because of his personal experiences and the historical conditions that shaped him. He refers, for example, to his ‘hatred of authority’ that was the result of his experiences with colonial imperialism as an employee of the Indian Police Force in Burma (now Myanmar). He also describes how he lived in poverty, which made him more and more aware of the existence of the working classes, and furthermore mentions his involvement in the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Hitler as historical factors that made him into a political author (Orwell 2003: 5-7).

This has not, Orwell claims about his own writings, resulted in works that merely consist of political sloganeering: his political ideals have always been entwined with his aesthetic sensibilities, he states. It is precisely because of these sensibilities that his political texts came to resonate with their readers. As he writes in a long passage that I want to quote in full:

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. (Orwell 2003: 8)

With the last lines, Orwell refers to feelings of curiosity and wonder, a sense of playfulness, and experiences of beauty that would be excluded from perspectives that are only political in nature.

Orwell reflects in ‘Why I Write’ on the art of writing and embeds his observations in diagnoses of events in a particular age, mainly the rise of imperialist politics and several forms of totalitarianism in the first half of the 20th century. However, in this essay, I employ his ideas in a different aesthetic, cultural and historical context: that of contemporary popular music. More specifically, I focus on The Ultra Vivid Lament, the 14th album of Manic Street Preachers, which was released on 20 September 2021 and debuted at nr. 1 in the UK Albums Chart.

The Manics’ Networks of References

The link between Orwell and Manic Street Preachers, consisting of singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield, bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire, and drummer Sean Moore, is not difficult to establish. This band have, as Bradfield observes in a recent interview about their latest album, always worn their intellectual and political hearts on their sleeves. Indeed, one of their many appeals is formed by the countless references to authors, politicians, philosophers, poets, and playwrights, as well as books, paintings, films, manifestos, and other artworks that can be found in their song lyrics and sleeve designs, or that are scattered throughout interviews or video-clips.

These references range from David Bowie (‘In Eternity’ on 2018’s Resistance Is Futile), Ray Johnson’s mail art (‘Locust Valley’, a B-side on the 2001 single of ‘Found That Soul’) and Willem de Kooning’s painting ‘Door to the River’ (‘Door to the River’ on 2002’s Greatest Hits album Forever Delayed), to Susan Sontag (quoted on the sleeve of 2002’s Know Your Enemy), Emily Pankhurst (‘Emily’ on 2003’s Lifeblood) and Jan Morris (‘Running Out of Fantasy’ on 2013’s Rewind the Film). Constituting these links, the band have always embedded themselves in a rhizomatic network of implicit and explicit references, sometimes discovered decades after a release came out.

An example found on The Ultra Vivid Lament is formed by the third song on the album: ‘The Secret He Had Missed’ released as its second single on 16 July 2021. The lyrics of this song, which form a duet between Bradfield and Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming, revolve around the lives of Gwen and Augustus John, a sister and brother born in the Welsh town of Tenby, who both became painters but lived opposite lives. Whereas Augustus embraced a bohemian existence of flamboyance and decadence, which included sexual violence, his sister was shy and quiet, eventually turning to catholicism and living most of her life in France.

The lyrics of the song present the contrasting perspectives of both painters, emphasized by the different voices of Bradfield and Cumming, and eventually gravitate toward reflections on the failure of Augustus to become as original and authentic as his sister. The lyrics include the statement made by Augustus himself, for example, that ’50 years from now, I shall be known as the brother of Gwen John’ (qtd. in BBC 1975). The title of the song was taken from a 1975 BBC documentary on the painters called Augustus and Gwen: The Fire and the Fountain. Reflecting on the failure of Augustus to make a mark on painting and to develop his talent to the fullest, the narrator of the documentary observes:

[Augustus] could not control his wayward talent or resolve the conflict within him. The fire of his inspiration burned out and he was left angry and unfulfilled. And he would sit and stare at his sister’s paintings, as if to discover there the secret he had missed. (BBC 1975)

This phrase returns in the lyrics of the song in the following lines: ‘The secret he had missed was lying at his fingertips / The girl in the long blue dress / Cast a spell and left us blessed’. As Simon Price notes in his review for The Quietus, the second line might refer to a painting by Gwen John called ‘The Convalescent’, also the title of a Manic Street Preachers song (on their album Know Your Enemy). It could also refer to her painting ‘Girl in a Blue Dress‘.

Another example of the many references included in Manic Street Preachers releases, and this brings me back to the issues discussed in the opening of this essay, concerns George Orwell: the sleeve of the band’s 1994 single ‘Revol’ contains a quote from Animal Farm, about which Orwell himself observes in ‘Why I Write’ that it was the first book in which he tried, ‘with full consciousness of what [he] was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole’ (2003: 9). The English author is also mentioned in the band’s song ‘1985’ (on Lifeblood), which claims that ‘in 1985 Orwell was proved right’, referring to Thatcher’s victory over the British Miners’ Strikes, powerfully depicted in Owen Gower’s 2014 documentary Still the Enemy Within.

Furthermore, references to 1984’s Big Brother, O’Brien and the ‘Newspeak’ dictionary turn up in the lyrics of ‘P.C.P.’ (on The Holy Bible) and ‘Peeled Apples’ (on Journal for Plague Lovers). A sample from Michael Radford’s film version of 1984 – in which we hear Winston Smith (played by John Hurt) state that within the totalitarian state of Oceania he wants ‘everyone corrupt’ – opens the song ‘Faster’ (on The Holy Bible). More implicitly, ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’, which partly concerns the Spanish Civil War, contains echoes of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

Orwell also pops up on The Ultra Vivid Lament. Most explicitly, this happens in the album’s second song, ‘Orwellian’, to which I return below. Another reference to Orwell is constituted rather implicitly: the album, as almost all releases by the band, is accompanied by a quote printed in its sleeve booklet. The quote used for The Ultra Vivid Lament goes as follows:

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Manic Street Preachers, The Ultra Vivid Lament

This quote is taken from the essay ‘Why I Write’ by American author Joan Didion (see Didion 2012: 101), which opens with the claim that she ‘stole’ the essay’s title from Orwell. One reason for doing this, she observes, is that the phrase sounds like ‘I – I – I’, which emphasizes her claim that ‘in many ways, writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind’ (Didion 2012: 101-102).

In the case of The Ultra Vivid Lament, the aim to make people listen can be understood literally: it is through music that the band aim to speak to their listeners, writing songs that are beautiful, catchy, and melancholic, and that include lyrics in which the ideas of Orwell and Didion, formulated in essays with the same title, come together. The album, this means, is driven by two aims, born in Orwell’s motive to ‘make political writing into art’ and in Didion’s desire to write in order to understand herself and her experiences. The personal and the political, in other words, are entwined on the album, and both dimensions revolve in different ways around the ‘ultra vivid lament’ of the album’s title.

The Manics’ Dystopic References

The album’s political dimensions can be understood, in line of Orwell, in the broadest sense possible: as the aim ‘to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after’ (Orwell 2003: 5). In the case of The Ultra Vivid Lament this aim comes about in a specific manner: by critically showing in what kind of society the lyrical ‘I’, as well as its listeners, do live, without necessarily claiming in what kind of society we should live. The choice for this approach is fueled by, and the lyrics of several songs on The Ultra Vivid Lament make clear, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to carve out a position in contemporary political debates. The only thing the self is able to do, these lyrics suggest, is reflect on the claim that this is difficult and express the confusion and alienation caused by this situation. This is the first dimension of the lament constituted by the album: a lament for truth, meaningful discourse, and connection, which are, the album suggests, drowning in a post-truth political landscape.

This lament is most clearly expressed in the song ‘Orwellian’, released as the album’s first single on 14 May 2021. The lyrics open with the following four lines: ‘We live in Orwellian times / It feels impossible to pick a side / In sentences that dance and hide / The truth becomes a broken lie’. Referring as well to words that ‘wage war’ and meanings that are ‘being missed’, ‘Orwellian’ criticizes the contemporary phenomena often characterized as ‘culture wars’ for turning political and social debates into shouting matches that are no longer concerned with listening to each other and with developing meaningful arguments.

Instead, the lyrics suggest, these wars have divided the political arena into two camps that deliberately misrepresent each other without exploring the many different sides of political standpoints, experiences, and ideas. The word ‘Orwellian’ was chosen as the song’s title because it is continuously ‘weaponized‘ by the right and the left, employed as a reference to 1984 to argue that ‘the other side’ tries to frame debates by policing language and presenting falsehoods as truths. In his analysis of the album, Price observes that some of the lyrics of ‘Orwellian’, as well as this explanation for the title, come across as a bit simplistic:

Taken in isolation – which is literally what happens when you release a single (especially an album’s lead single) – it feels a little weak, a compromised response to extreme times. “It feels impossible to pick a side”, Wire writes (and Bradfield sings). Does it really, when the right are in the ascendancy? This equivocation smells like a cop-out. (Price 2021)

To some extent I agree, but this analysis pushes the song’s meaning into the same dualism between two ‘sides’ that ‘Orwellian’ encourages its listeners to question. By lamenting truth, critical reflection and social connection, meaningful disagreement and discourse, after all, the song expresses the idea that it feels impossible to uniformly pick a side because one may have different opinions and ideas about different issues. Reducing the debate to two sides misses the importance of knowledge, reflection, debate, and argumentation, as well as the willingness to listen to each other and recognize the value of each other’s experiences.

‘Everywhere you look’, ‘Orwellian’ goes on, ‘The future fights the past / The books begin to burn’. Given the song’s title, it is impossible not to link the first line to the famous slogan of the Party in Orwell’s 1984, that ‘who controls the past controls the future’ and that ‘who controls the present controls the past’ (Orwell 1977: 33 – these lines occur prominently as well in Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Testify’).

Not only does this reference again emphasize the importance of, in this case, historical knowledge, it also points at a different aspect of the political and social whole diagnosed on The Ultra Vivid Lament: the moment history disappears and is changed in the name of concerns of the present or ideas about the future, we come to live in a ‘perpetual now’ (see also Peters 2020: 283) in which we are destined to respond ad hoc to each other’s claims and arguments without recognizing their political and intellectual history and without exploring the multi-dimensional contexts in which words gain meaning.

This idea resonates as well with the second line of this passage, regarding books that ‘begin to burn’. The song’s references to Orwell and 1984 point the listener, when hearing this line, to another dystopian novel: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which depicts a society in which books are burned to destroy knowledge and to make people uncritically accept the social and political status quo. Again, therefore, this reference emphasizes the value and importance of reading, writing, reflecting, and exploring different perspectives and experiences, which often means that one is confronted with ideas that one might not necessarily agree with.

People Machines

This lament for truth, for meaningful discourse, for education, and for a recognition of historical knowledge is furthermore linked in ‘Orwellian’ to digitalization processes, social media, and big tech companies. The algorithms shaped by the latter companies, the song suggests, are to a large extent responsible for the tribalistic and simplistic culture wars revolving around the phrase ‘Orwellian’, as well as for the constitution of a perpetual digital ‘now’ in which historical awareness loses its relevance.

Bradfield already made similar claims in a 2018 interview, stating for example about the title of their fifth album: ‘That’s why Nick called our album ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’. It says ‘This Is MY Truth, now TELL ME YOURS’. Not ‘This Is My Truth now let the algorithm send me a truth that’s the same as mine’. There’s an algorithmic pressure to make you read things that will keep you warm at night because they agree with you, and that’s just very, very unhealthy’.

The lyrics of ‘Orwellian’ make a similar claim by mentioning ‘people machines’ that are ‘still making fools out of us’. This phrase, as Clarke notes as well, refers to the American Simulmatics Corporation, founded in 1959 to develop mathematical models that would be able to predict and eventually manipulate the behavior of people. Jill Lepore writes in If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future about these machines:

Simulmatics’ scientists were known as the What-If Men. They believed that by simulating human behavior, their People Machine could help the human race avert each and every disaster. It could defeat communism. It could counter insurgencies. It could win elections. It could sell mouthwash. It could accelerate news, like so much amphetamine. It could calm agitated wives. It could win the war in Vietnam by targeting hearts and minds. It could predict race riots, and even plagues. It could end chaos. (Lepore 2020: 20)

In 1964 the Simulmatics Corporation and its ‘people machines’ were critically explored in Eugene Burdick’s novel The 480, and in 1973 in Rainer Maria Fassbinder’s television serial Welt am Draht. Mentioning them again in a popular music song in 2021, Manic Street Preachers make the listener aware of the long history of algorithmic-driven forms of manipulation, providing the ‘perpetual now’ to which these same algorithms reduce us with a historical background. As Lepore writes:

Hardly anyone, almost no one, remembers Simulmatics anymore. But beneath that honeycombed dome, the scientists of this long-vanished American corporation helped build the machine in which humanity would, by the twenty-first century, find itself trapped and tormented: stripped bare, driven to distraction, deprived of its senses, interrupted, exploited, directed, connected and disconnected, bought and sold, alienated and coerced, confused, misinformed, and even governed. They never meant to hurt anyone. (Lepore 2020: 16)

Warnings for a post-postmodern age characterized by critic Alan Kirby as revolving around digimodernism have formed a continuing theme in Manic Street Preachers releases: they can already be found, for example, in ‘Don’t Be Evil’ (on 2012’s Postcards from a Young Man), named after Google’s former motto. Furthermore, they formed an explanation for the photograph used for the cover of their 2018 album Resistance is Futile. Depicting one of the last Samurai Warriors, Wire stated: ‘I just can’t navigate myself through the digital hysteria and political insanity of the current times. I’d be lying if I said I felt that absolutism of my youth now, because everything overlaps. That’s the idea of the samurai warrior being an analogy for us – everyone else has their iPhones and we’ve still got our guitars’.

In several interviews, Manic Street Preachers also linked these warnings for digitized processes of polarization to reflections on the fragmentation of working-class consciousness and the splintering of the left‘. In ‘Orwellian’ this analysis returns in the lines ‘A deepening sense of fear of crime / On the playing fields in exclusive clubs / And the people machines still making fools out of us’. Coupling these lines suggests that the culture wars that are being fought, propelled by social media, undermine the possibility of leftist critical resistance, eventually playing into the hands of the upper classes as well as conservative and reactionary movements. Furthermore, the album’s title suggests, we are all aware of this situation: we see truth and meaningful discourse disappear in an algorithm-steered age, but it feels like nothing can be done about it, apart from lamenting its disappearance. This I what makes this lament ultra vivid in character.

‘A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun’

One of the most striking characterizations of the ‘perpetual present’ shaped by algorithm-steered forms of fragmentation is formed by the title of the song ‘A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun’ (on Postcards from a Young Man). This phrase reminds one of J.R. Eyereman’s photograph used for the 1983 edition of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, depicting an audience wearing 3D glasses and staring in the same direction. The phrase itself is taken from J.G. Ballard’s 1996 Cocaine Nights, which takes place in leisure resorts on the Spanish Costa, characterized in this novel as a place where ‘nothing would ever happen again'(Ballard 1997: 75). The resorts are inhabited by people described as ‘refugees from time’ (Ballard 1997: 216) and ‘ghosts of themselves’ (Ballard 1997: 75). The dialogue in which the phrase is mentioned goes as follows:

Leisure societies lie ahead of us, like those you see on this coast. People will still work – or, rather, some people will work, but only for a decade of their lives. They will retire in their late thirties, with fifty years of idleness in front of them.

A billion balconies facing the sun. Still, it means a final goodbye to wars and ideologies.

But how do you energize people, give them some sort of sense of community? A world lying on its back is vulnerable to any cunning predator. Politics are a pastime for a professional caste and fail to excite the rest of us. (Ballard 1997:180)

As this passage indicates, the era and area depicted in Cocaine Nights are presented in the novel as the future of modern civilization: one in which ‘the past isn’t allowed to exist’ (Ballard 1997: 207), located in the ‘timelessness of a world beyond boredom, with no past, no future and a diminishing present’ (Ballard 1997: 35). In several places, furthermore, the area is characterized with reference to the paintings of Edward Hopper, often depicting individuals living an atomized existence in modern, rather desolate landscapes. The Ultra Vivid Lament paints similar pictures, pointing, however, at forms of polarization and atomization that take place under the surface of the seemingly peaceful, post-politica and digitized ‘perpetual present’ that followed Francis Fukuyama’s supposed – and recently postponed – ‘end of history’.

The novel’s atmosphere, as well as the references to Hopper, resonate with the cover of The Ultra Vivid Lament, as well as its design dominated by yellow and light blue: a figure standing in the ocean, the water’s surface reflecting the sun’s light so vividly that the scene almost becomes a mirage or a dream, reminding of the endless sunny days shaped in the post-historical and post-political landscapes of Ballard’s Cocaine Nights or in Hopper’s paintings. It is impossible, furthermore, not to link this atmosphere to the observation that the album mostly came about in the Covid-era, characterized by lockdown, standstill, isolation, and an eerie sense of timelessness. Indeed, Bradfield associated the cover with ‘the Truman Show nature of lockdown’, again referring to the idea of ‘reality’ turning into a post-historical ‘unreality’.

Language The Virus

Cocaine Nights describes how the seemingly sunny and careless surface of its futuristic leisure society results in forms of boredom and alienation that make the residents of its Spanish resorts embrace transgressive and criminal behavior as the only possibility of escape. In a similar way, The Ultra Vivid Lament aims to pierce through the seemingly careless surface of the perpetual present that it depicts. This is not only done by showing how this situation results in polarization and conflict, but also by expressing what it does to the self: the album includes several references to confusion, doubt, boredom, and alienation, in this way again entwining the political and the personal.

The more difficult it becomes to have meaningful political debates and discussions by relying on notions of truth and truthfulness, authenticity, or on the ability to communicate ideas, these references suggest, the more the ‘I’ that, to refer to Didion’s quote again, writes to understand what it is seeing and what this means, starts to unravel. The song ‘Quest for Ancient Colour’, for example, opens with the observations that ‘I had a very bad dream / The main actor in it was me / My scream had lost its source / Like a reservoir in a summer drought’.

There is no basis anymore, the song suggests in this way, no foundation or center in which the ‘I’ can find itself rooted. This basis has dried up in the endless sun of Cocaine Nights, replacing reality with an endless shiny surface under which polarization and political hatred boil and fester. This transforms the world, the lyrics suggest, into an illusory dream, making the ‘I’ exclaim that it ‘used to make sense’ but now is ‘confused’. Again, furthermore, this condition is linked to digitalization processes: ‘Modern life was killed and crushed / By a derelict digitised love’. A similar observation pops up in ‘Blank Diary Entry’, which describes the attempt to seek ‘consolation in machines’.

Mixing the personal with the political, the song ‘Complicated Illusions’ embeds this condition, in turn, in references to philosophical and intellectual movements. More specifically, the lyrics concern the transition from De Saussure’s structuralism to Jacques Derrida’s post-structuralism. Again describing a post-historical situation in which ‘Time turns itself to stone’ and in which there is ‘Nothing left to lose and nothing left to win’, the lyrics reflect Derrida’s idea that there is no ‘outside’ to the discourses that shape us and to the languages that we speak; that there is no truth beyond language, at least not a truth that would refer to a ‘reality’ that transcends the words that we speak.

The only thing we can therefore do, Derrida suggests, is deconstruct the texts in which we are always already embedded, looking for holes and traces that might enable us to introduce a form of difference without buying into the illusion that we can in any way escape from the same textual structures that shape meaning. As Derrida observes in a 1968 interview with Julia Kristeva:

In the extent to which what is called “meaning” (to be “expressed”) is already, and thoroughly, constituted by a tissue of differences, in the extent to which there is already a text, a network of textual referrals to other texts, a textual transformation in which each allegedly “simple term” is marked by the trace of another term, the presumed interiority of meaning is already worked upon by its own exteriority. It is always already carried outside itself. (Derrida 2003: 33)

Based on this idea, Derrida argues that even though we cannot escape from the texts that shape meaning, we can still rejoice in the endless references and openings created by deconstructing and decentering the meanings that we take for granted. This idea is based, he emphasizes in another interview, on ‘the structural impossibility of limiting this network, of putting an edge on its weave, of tracing a margin that would not be a new mark’ (Derrida 2003: 40). Claims like these return in several lines in ‘Complicated Illusions’, which refer to ‘Desires to break and deconstruct’ and claim: ‘And in the margins of the page / Truth hides but leaves a trace’.

Whereas Derrida’s approach, however, praises the power of interpretation for being able to break texts open and constitute endless labyrinths of meaning, in ‘Complicated Illusions’, his anti-foundationalist departure from essentialist understandings of ‘truth’ is coupled to more personal feelings of self-doubt caused by the corrosion of one’s beliefs and ideologies. ‘Every battle I’ve ever fought’, the lyrics claim, ‘Has either been lost or bought’. The moment one starts deconstructing one’s own desires, the song suggests in this way, one’s ideologies and political beliefs already begin to crumble and are replaced with doubt, confusion, and alienation.

The next song on the album, ‘Into the waves of love’, radicalizes this idea: ‘Don’t try to sell me a universal truth / I’m all given up on listening to you’. Again, the lyrics couple this observation to language, which is presented as weaving a dream-like reality that hides truth instead of uncovering it. Again, furthermore, these lyrics can be linked to the ideas of Derrida, who in 1994 observed about his approach to language and meaning: ‘All I have done […] is dominated by the thought of a virus, what could be called a parasitology, a virology, the virus being many things. […] The virus is in part a parasite that destroys, that introduces disorder into communication’ (Derrida 1994: 12).

In a rather obscure manner, Derrida here again suggests that the only thing that we can really do, once we have accepted the idea that language constitutes meaning and that there is, therefore, no ‘outside’ to this meaning, is to deconstruct the words that we use, the ways in which these words shape meaning, and to show that these theories are never ‘pure’ or ‘clean’, never ‘truthful’ but always infected by and reliant on other parasitological meanings and ideas. This process, he observes in this passage, also results in obscuring and disrupting forms of communication itself: the philosopher, in this way, becomes a virus.

Derrida’s ‘parasitology’ returns in the song ‘Into the waves of love’, which tells the listener: ‘So silence is a liberation / As the layers of light have now disappeared / Language a virus without reason / Just skeletons hiding from the rain’. This reference to language as a virus and to a longing for silence also embed this passage in another textual context: the 1962 novel The Ticket That Exploded, in which William S. Burrough develops the idea that language is a virus that makes it impossible for human beings to experience silence anymore:

From symbiosis to parasitism is a short step. The word is now a virus. The flu virus may once have been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the lungs. The word may once have been a healthy neural cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten second of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. (Burroughs 1967: 49)

As with many other novels by Burroughs, furthermore, The Ticket That Exploded revolves around different forms of mind-control and paranoia, and it is no surprise that, together with the above-mentioned Ballard, he had an important influence on the claustrophobic universe shaped in Joy Division’s lyrics. In The Ticket That Exploded this paranoia returns in references to intergalactic criminals who aim to control people by creating ‘as many insoluble conflicts as possible’ and by aggravating ‘existing conflicts’ through the parasitological and virus-like character of language (Burroughs 1967: 55). A link with the manipulating people machines of ‘Orwellian is not difficult to constitute.

Things Falling Apart

What makes the realization problematic that language is or has become a ‘virus without reason’ and that it is becoming increasingly difficult to pin down meaning, The Ultra Vivid Lament suggests, is that this means that there is no longer a middle ground, a center that would enable people to communicate with each other by rooting them in the same meaningful whole. Indeed, a telling line in ‘Complicated Illusions’ confesses to the listener that the ‘I’ defends ‘the middle ground’.

This again constitutes a link with the works of JDidion, this time with a text that opens with the following line: ‘The center was not holding’. This line, which made its way to the title of Griffin Dunne’s 2017 documentary about this American author, opens with the article ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem‘, in which Didion describes the counter-culture of the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury district. Piercing through its seemingly utopian and ideological appearance, not unlike how Ballard exposes the criminal underworld boiling beneath the surface of the dream-like reality shaped in Cocaine Nights, Didion describes the deeply disturbing and meaningless existence lived in that time by many who moved to San Francisco to explore drugs and supposedly liberating perspectives, culminating in a horrifying description of her encounter with a five-year-old child on acid.

Not unlike Bret Easton Ellis’ novels Less Than Zero (1985) and American Psycho (1991), which are both referenced in early Manic Street Preachers songs, Didion’s article circles feelings of Unheimlichkeit, pointing at the idea that something is very wrong without really being able to put one’s finger exactly on what is going on and why it is wrong. One explanation that Didion does provide revolves around the corrosion of language. Didion writes about the people she describes in her article: ‘Because they do not believe in words […] their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language. She therefore refers to these people as ‘an army of children waiting to be given the words’ (Didion 1968: 172).

This has resulted in what Didion characterizes as a social ‘vacuum’ and in ‘atomization’ (Didion 1968: 171), disconnecting individuals from each other since they are unable to rely on a shared knowledge or even a shared language. Again, this idea can be linked to the atomization constituted by social media algorithms, diagnosed in ‘Orwellian’.

Like the title of ‘Why I Write’, Didion took her reference to a center that does not hold from another text: a 1919 poem by W.B. Yeats (whose portrait was painted in 1907 by the above-mentioned Augustus John) entitled ‘The Second Coming‘ (the title of the collection in which Didion’s text is published was taken from this poem as well: ‘Slouching towards Bethlehem’). Written in-between the two World Wars and before the Irish War of Independence, this poem sketches the eerie feeling that the world is going to end. It employs apocalyptic and messianic imagery to describe the idea that, under the surface, the structures that should hold together our societies are corroding and are going to implode, inevitably resulting in war and bloodshed. As Yeats writes in the first half of the poem:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(Yeats 1994: 158)

Together with the phrase ‘Things fall apart’, which found its way to the titles of Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel and the fourth album by the Roots, the observation that ‘the center will not hold’ expresses the idea that the world is inevitably going to meet its doom, no longer held together by a center or a common ground, corroded under the influence of processes that Didion characterizes as ‘atomizing’’ This apocalyptic and eerie feeling again returns on The Ultra Vivid Lament: ‘Orwellian’ contains the lines ‘I’ll walk you through the apocalypse / Where me and you could coexist’. Similar references return in the song ‘Afterending’, which contains an invitation to ‘Sail into the abyss with me / After ending and after belief / After tomorrow and after the flood’.

Apocalyptic Nothingness

As these lines indicate, these apocalyptic references are not purely critical, negative, or even political in nature. Instead, The Ultra Vivid Lament again entwines the political and the personal, expressing how the feeling that resistance seems to be futile and that there seems to be no possibility for escape or for constituting political change results in the personal desire to embrace an almost Schopenhauerian form of salvation, constituted by turning one’s back to the world. It is here that references to silence return again, contrasted with the corroded beliefs and deconstructed ideologies lamented in the album’s other songs.

‘Into the Waves of Love’, for example, opens with the following statements: ‘I don’t know what it is I believe in / But it involves misery and keeping still / Of a silence so intense and hard to find’. Containing the phrase ‘Progress is a comfortable disease’, taken from the 1944 poem ‘pity this busy monster – manunkind’ by the American poet e e cummings, this ‘silence’ is coupled to ‘nothingness’ in ‘Afterending’, which again suggests that the modern age has reduced us to onlookers of a disaster that we can only lament without having the ability to change the course of the world:

‘We enter a night of nothingness / Even your shadow disappears / Reality becomes an apology / And waking up the catastrophe’. The song ends with the claim that ‘The near future has been and gone’, again sketching a post-historical ‘perpetual now’ that resonates as well with the song’s title: ‘Afterending’. References to nothingness also return in ‘My Drowning World’, a bonus track on the Japanese edition of The Ultra Vivid Lament: ‘to live in the ruins of my own life / To surf on the waves of nothingness / […] / The glory of my dying world’.

In ‘Blank Diary Entry’, a duet between Bradfield and American singer Mark Lanegan, similar desires are expressed in descriptions of a ‘goodbye to glory’ and in references to ‘solitude’ and ‘emptiness’ that are reflected by a ‘blank diary entry’. Most explicitly, however, this embrace of loneliness and silence returns in ‘Happy Bored Alone’, in which we find defenses of a life of withdrawal, boredom, and even voyeurism to the apocalyptic unfolding of a collapsing center. The song describes being witness to ‘the smile of a dying hero’, ‘the tears of a love that’s leaving’ and praying to a ‘godless sky’, and eventually concludes that ‘Boredom was always my best friend’ and that it leads the ‘me’ to a higher plane.

Holograms

But The Ultra Vivid Lament goes even further: at places the album suggests that there is something beautiful in disconnecting oneself from the world and in watching the center implode. This suggestion is mainly shaped by the album’s music, described by Price as having a ‘glacial beauty’ and by Clarke as shaping a ‘consistent beautiful gloom from which little bursts of beauty constantly surface’. Talking about the musical aspect of the album, Wire himself refers as well to a ‘glacial kind of controlled energy that comes out in something melancholic, but uplifting’, and embeds the album in their discography by stating that it has the ‘high modernism’ of Futurology and the ‘underplayed, glacial power’ of Lifeblood.

Given the richness of its lyrics, it is easy to overlook this musical aspect when interpreting The Ultra Vivid Lament, but it plays a crucial role in the meaning constituted by the album. This, I believe, is the other meaning of the phrase ‘resistance is futile’, the title of their previous album. Wire claims that the entryist aim behind the album was to make ‘seductive’ music that would leer in the listener and then ‘smuggle in’ a critical message with help of the lyrics. Indeed, the album’s music is hard to resist, resonating with listeners and pulling them in with help of catchy melodies. Primarily composed on piano, the album embraces a musical direction that, as many journalists noted, is strongly influenced by the poppy and slightly melancholic music of bands like ABBA, ELO, Talk Talk, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Lodger-era Bowie, The Associates, Roxy Music, Simple Minds and others (see Arundel 2021; Tom 2021; Murray 2021; Goggins 2021).

This means that the album’s musical dimension at places even constitutes moments of bliss and optimism; resulting in a disconnect between words and music. Steven Poole in The Guardian was even fooled into thinking that ‘Orwellian’ celebrates the age diagnosed in the song, taking its almost carefree disco-tone and its ABBA-like piano chords as endorsing the practices described in its apocalyptic lyrics, such as the burning of books and the corrosion of meaning. Whereas the lyrics of many songs on the album sketch a world in which truth hides in margins, in which language is a virus that controls the self, in which digimodernism is infecting all aspects of existence, and in which this self can therefore do nothing but lament this situation and try to withdraw into silence and nothingness, the music pulls the listener back in, touching them on an affective and emotional level. Most explicitly, such a disconnect between music and words returns in the almost cynical meaning that ‘Afterending’ gains when the line ‘The near feature has been and gone’ is followed by a joyful and carefree singing of ‘lalala’.

The release of The Ultra VIVID Lament, in September 2021, coincided with ABBA announcing a tour during which holograms of their younger selves would perform. Perhaps this is how the music on this Manic Street Preachers album, permeated with the influence of the Swedish group, also comes to reflect some of the above-mentioned themes: the idea that reality has turned into a shiny surface, into a virtual digitized ‘perpetual now’ in which past, present and future entwine, may not find a better representation than an audience watching holograms representing people from the past performing music from this same past. Indeed, Wire described the music on the album as ‘organic futurism’, introducing a certain timelessness that would make the listener ‘not quite sure what era’ they are listening to. Somewhere else, he defines it as a ‘futuristic fantasy album’ that reflects ‘the classic ‘70s idea of the future that never really arrived’.

Mourning and Melancholia

The nostalgic traces of ABBA’s hologram tour bring me to the last aspect of The Ultra Vivid Lament that I want to discuss. It would be wrong to conclude that the album only presents us either with expressions of alienation and confusion or with images of glacial beauty, painting vistas of a world from which the center is falling apart, presented as a spectacle, a hologram, that is both eerie and beautiful. Instead, the album also contains highly personal moments, mainly of lament: the album was written in a period in which Wire lost both of his parents to cancer, which embeds it in his personal mourning process. In The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), in which she reflects on the death of her husband, Didion writes the following about this process:

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. (Didion 2006: 220)

Didion’s observation, quoted on the sleeve of The Ultra Vivid Lament, that she writes to find out the state she is in, clearly returns to her detailed descriptions of personal feelings of grief and mourning in The Year of Magical Thinking. A similar motivation echoes through the tender and melancholic song ‘Diapause’ on The Ultra Vivid Lament, the title of which reflects the experience of being in a state of grief. The song’s lyrics describe a self thrown into a timeless and spaceless void, desperately trying to connect but losing control over what happens: ‘I stood still for a moment paralysed / The sky seemed so high as the world passed me by / I can’t find a solution as decades unfold / So callous as my standstill takes hold’.

References to the deaths of Wire’s parents, the experience of which he described in an interview as ‘a gaping hole of sadness that overtook my life’, can also be found in the above-mentioned ‘My Drowning World’, which is sung by Wire himself and refers to his mother as ‘a long-distance ghost’. The drowning mentioned in its title resonates with another observation made by Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking: ‘I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table. Let them become the name on the trust accounts. Let go of them in the water.’ Didion concludes this passage with the observation that ‘knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water’ (2006: 263-64), a feeling that returns in the lyrics of ‘Diapause’ and that is expressed through its melancholic music.

Why this more personal lament shaped on the album is also ultra vivid in nature might be explained with help of Didion as well. In Blue Nights (2011), which she wrote after her daughter died, Didion observes the following: ‘this book is called “Blue Nights” because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning’ (Didion 2011: 12).

In a similar vein, The Ultra Vivid Lament describes experiences of loss, despair, grief, and mourning in moments of brightness: the mourning self shaped in these lyrics is vividly aware of what has happened, reflects on it, describes their failure of making sense of it, nevertheless unable to control it. This time, words seem to fail for a different reason: as Didion notes throughout her books on mourning, language is often powerless in the face of experiences of grief and mourning.

This more personal dimension also returns in a different manner on The Ultra Vivid Lament: in songs that mourn a past that has disappeared. The album opens with ‘Still Snowing in Sapporo’, which describes a visit of the band to Japan in 1993. In this time Manic Street Preachers were still a foursome: in 1994, their lyricist and guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared, never to be seen or found again. The song describes how the lyrical ‘I’ sees their own memories ‘through a video camera filter’. Lamenting the past, the lyrics describe memories of the band’s early years, resonating with the images shown in Kieran Evans’ documentary of their 1993 Japanese tour (through a video camera filter), as well as with the images used for the video clip of their 1992 single ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’, also shot in Japan: ‘Through clouds and fog we glimpsed the neon lights / With make up running eyes turned towards the sky’.

The lamenting and melancholic nature of the song return in the lines ‘How could 4 become so strong / Yet break and leave too soon’, describing a past freeze-framed in the memories of the lyrical ‘I’, turned, as Didion notes in the passage cited above, into a photograph. This melancholic tendency has always played an important role in the lyrics of the band: references to a lost childhood innocence can be found on their earliest albums, but after the disappearance of Edwards they started looking back more and more on the past they had by then developed themselves, often combining nostalgic musings revolving around the trauma of Edwards’s disappearance with references to crumbling ideologies. This same combination returns in the lyrics of ‘Still Snowing in Sapporo’: ‘Those days may never come again / My optimism resembles a dying flame’.

Warmth and Connection

These references to the past re-introduce a form of warmth to the otherwise ‘glacial’ atmosphere of the album, countering the emptiness, silence, and post-political reality sketched and embraced on and by The Ultra Vivid Lament. This past, after all, re-centers this otherwise decentered reality by emphasizing the band’s history and perseverance: one of the reasons why this album resonates with longtime fans of Manic Street Preachers is that it reminds listeners of the 35 years of their existence, not only because of the recognizable political and intellectual dimensions of their lyrics, some of which I discussed above but also because of more implicit links.

The musical structure and sound of the song ‘Still Snowing in Sapporo’, for example, reminds of the melancholic 1996 B-side ‘Dead Trees and Traffic Islands’ (on the single of ‘A Design for Life’, the title of which might be a reference to Ballard’s novel Concrete Island). The above-mentioned quote by e e cummings, furthermore, was already printed in the sleeve of Generation Terrorists, and in the same booklet we find the Sylvia Plath quote ‘I pray to god but the sky is empty’, which echoes through the above-mentioned line ‘praying to a godless sky’ (see also Price 2021).

The album closer ‘Afterending’, in turn, contains spectral echoes of ‘Cardiff Afterlife’, the song that closes Lifeblood. Both songs overlap in the sense that they sketch a melancholic beyond, the first possibly referring to Richey Edwards, emphasized by its employment of harp and percussion crescendos that remind of Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) (one of the many films celebrated by the band in their early years), the second referring to the post-political afterlife discussed above.

The duet on ‘The Secret He Had Missed’, as Price notes furthermore, reminds of the Manic Street Preachers song – and duet – ‘Dylan and Caitlyn’ (on Resistance is Futile), about Dylan and Caitlyn Thomas (both painted by Augustus John). It also reminds of ‘Tsunami’ (on This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours), another song about Welsh siblings. This time the twin sisters Jennifer and June Gibbons, of whom one also overshadowed the other, the phrase ‘tsunami’ referring to the tragic sense of sad liberation that overcame June when her sister Jennifer died. In this way, the album celebrates the 35 years during which the band have built up connections with their fans, becoming a part of the identity of the latter, not only influencing their ideas and reflections with help of lyrics but also forming the soundtrack of important moments in their lives.

A re-centering also takes place through the more personal dimensions of the album’s lament: the tender and emotional references to forms of mourning emphasize the importance of human connection, of interpersonal warmth, of loving relationships in which one feels home. ‘My Drowning World’ constitutes this personal history by emphasizing the ways in which the words we use are haunted by our parents: ‘My father’s anger still raging / All around my million words / None of which I wrote, all of which I learned / Hymns of my youth still call me’. In ‘Complicated Illusions’, this idea returns in the line ‘And in the rhythm of your voice / I find space to rejoice’.

In this way, these lyrics turn away from Saussure’s focus on the underlying structures of language, or from Burroughs and Derrida’s idea that language is a virus. Instead, they embrace the meaningful and personal nature of communication; the warmth that forms part of loving relationships, which the band seem to be comfortable cherishing in their lyrics now that they are in their 50s and have turned away from the radicalism – sometimes political, sometimes nihilistic – of their early albums.

A Political Purpose

Orwell concludes ‘Why I Write’ with the following observation: ‘looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally’ (2003: 10). The same holds true for Manic Street Preachers releases. The Welsh band’s best albums are driven by a political idea that unites their lyrics, music, album art and production, channeling these dimensions into an artwork that exuberates meaning on different levels, centering around Orwell’s political aim ‘to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after’.

Whether this concerns an employment of Situationist tactics on Generation Terrorists, bleak explorations of the dark sides of human civilization on The Holy Bible, or an embrace of Europeanism through various international art movements on Futurology, each of these albums revolves around a specific political aim – which I characterized in my book , Popular Music, Critique and Manic Street Preachers, about the band as a ‘critical model’ – that holds it together and ‘imposes’ itself, to use Didion’s words again, ‘on other people’.

At the same time, as mentioned above, these albums also contain that which Orwell describes as the world-view he acquired in childhood: in different ways, these albums are embraced by listeners because they resonate with them, connect to them, have become a part of their lives, and in that way constitute meaningful and warm connections that lie beyond the purely political.

Completing the circle, The Ultra Vivid Lament shows that it is eventually this same personal warmth and this emphasis on connection that infuses the political realm with hope: the album contains one song that is explicitly political and optimistic in nature, defending social togetherness as an antidote to the atomization processes described by the other songs on the album. This song is called ‘Don’t Let the Night Divide Us’ and urges the listener to not let ‘their hatred blind us’, the ‘they’ referring to ‘The boys from Eton’ who we should not allow to ‘suggest that we are beaten’.

Including this optimistic but also combative song on the album, the band contrast the above-mentioned moments of withdrawal and of a longing for apocalyptic nothingness with an emphasis on the political need to change the societies in which we live: ‘A land now so infected / Can be freed and equal’. It is in this way that, eventually, the personal and the political again come together on The Ultra Vivid Lament, making the album’s lament less hopeless than it initially seems to be. Even in today’s world, resistance might therefore not be entirely futile – at least not as long as critical popular music provides us with moments of reflection, connection, warmth, and critique.



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