Thirty years on from their messy, punky, spraypainted birth, Manic Street Preachers have thoroughly embraced rock’n’roll middle age by producing their first album of songs written on piano. They can still muster an erudite lyric, a dexterous guitar solo and a striking, poetic album title, but The Ultra Vivid Lament sounds like a composite of their most MOR moments to date.
Opening track Snowing in Sapporo is pleasant, easy listening with winsome sentiments and glacial synths. The blithely upbeat single Orwellian marries a funky, bouncy bassline to deadly serious lyrics on language, debate and culture wars where “it seems impossible to pick a side,” while Don’t Let the Night Divide Us is a call for solidarity (“don’t let those boys from Eton suggest that we are beaten”) in the guise of an Abbaesque 70s pop song.
It’s mildly – very mildly – subversive stuff and, as always, you might learn something while absently humming along. For example, The Secret He Had Missed imagines a conversation between sibling artists Augustus and Gwen John as a Eurovision duet with Sunflower Bean frontwoman Julia Cumming.
Frontman James Dean Bradfield has further fun with the impish use of 80s soft rock guitar riffing on Quest for Ancient Colour. The Manics are not really a minor key band these days – but it’s straight faces on again for the implicit desolation of Blank Diary Entry, a suitably moody noir pop duet with the shadowy singer Mark Lanegan.