The band delve into loss, insecurity and existential dread, resulting in some of the prettiest songs of their career
In the time between Manic Street Preachers’ last record, 2018’s ‘Resistance Is Futile’, and the onset of the pandemic last year, chief songwriter Nicky Wire lost both his mother and father to cancer. Their losses casted a huge shadow over his writing for ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’.
In lockdown, Wire went deep into his insecurities – his grief, a sense of alienation from the modern world, and existential anxiety about his own relevance – and emerged with the most fragile, self-effacing lyrics of his career. “I used to make sense, but now I am confused,” James Dean Bradfield sings his words on ‘The Quest For Ancient Colour’. “I used to control, but now I just feel used.”
Composed by Bradfield almost entirely on piano, the music on ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ is draped in the sound of the band’s childhoods: the glitzy yet melancholy pop of ABBA, Neil Diamond, The Carpenters and Glen Campbell, and the elegant post-punk of Echo And The Bunnymen. It’s an album of dramatic piano flourishes and rushes of guitar; of old-school duets (with Mark Lanegan and Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming respectively) and soaring power-pop choruses. Much of the album’s brilliance emerges when Wire’s intense introspection is filtered through this now-faded glamour.
The unnervingly ambient ‘Still Snowing In Sapporo’ opens the record with a look back, “through a video camera filter” ,at the band’s pivotal, chaotic and emotional 1993 tour of Japan. “The four of us against the world,” Bradfield sings as the song fades back into ambience at its end, recalling the tragedy and brilliance of their guitarist Richey Edwards, who has been missing since 1995.
Its beauty lies not so much in nostalgia but in its contrast with the present day, where that abandon has been replaced by anxiety, overthinking and alienation, which is captured in some of the band’s prettiest songs yet. “I don’t know what it is that I believe in, but involves misery and keeping still” sings Bradfield over an entrancing weave of piano and acoustic guitar on ‘Into The Waves Of Love’.
The record has its flaws – the odd misguided lyric, the occasional slip into by-numbers pop melodies – but there’s plenty of space for those mistakes to be made. ‘Orwellian’’s clunky lambast of the modern world (“We live in Orwellian times / It feels impossible to pick a side”), for instance, is rescued by its gloriously melodramatic instrumental. In the end, they are minor bumps in a record of intense beauty, among the best of the Manics’ records this century.