The Manics’ 13th album aims to find beauty and positivity in a bleak-as-fuck post-truth world. Andrew Trendell finds Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield rockin’ in the not-so-free world.
Every Manic Street Preachers release since their inception has been adorned with a crucial quote from a philosopher, artist, writer, or rock god. It teases a signpost to the character and inspiration of the record within, as well as continuing a rock n’ roll book club of further education for their devoted church of followers.
In fine, sparring spirit, bassist, lyricist and propaganda minister tells NME that on 13th album ‘Resistance Is Futile’, the band lived by the words of razor-sharp American protest singer Phil Ochs: “In times of such ugliness, the only true protest is beauty”.
“Hopefully this record gives you a chance to avoid the endless confusion,” says Wire.
The confusion he refers to is all around, but ultimately invisible. The thread that runs throughout the Manics’ colourful and divisive career has been the constant questioning of and search for truths; looking to art and the past to illuminate what’s missing in the present. What is the present? A social media web of fake news and an algorithm-driven, echo-chamber reality where the ‘truth’ is out there, but amid the vast digital hiss of zeros, ones and bullshit.
The irony of you reading this digitally is not lost on us, dear reader. Once describing themselves as “the quintessential NME band”, the Godlike Genius alumni graced our cover a mammoth 31 times over the years – that’s more than both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. A paper cover is not possible anymore (“it would all have been so different if I was made editor,” chuckles an assured Wire), but still, here we are.
“I just hate the fact that the world is being robbed of music journalism,” shrugs a clearly-riled James Dean Bradfield, pondering the disappearance of titles and outlets across their 30+year career. “The reduction of words is scandalous. I think it’s harmful for people not to have the music that they love investigated.”
It’s that battle against the status quo and the search for a purpose that forms the core of ‘Resistance Is Futile’. The photograph Samurai Warrior 1881 by Franz von Stillfried-Ratenicz adorns the sleeve of record. A snapshot of one of the very last soldiers of his kind, the image and the album’s title itself question whether this is a call to arms in the face of the changing tide, or an acceptance of defeat?
The last time I sat down with Wire was in his hotel room while the band were in London to perform their 1996 album ‘Everything Must Go’ in full at the Royal Albert Hall in 2016. Off the back of 2014’s ‘Futurology’ receiving some of the best reviews of their career, and the surge of goodwill from celebrating the cult classic ‘The Holy Bible’ and EMG on subsequent tours, you’d have thought that their creative souls would have been in rude health. I’ll admit going a little weak at the knees when Nicky invited me to peak inside his notebook at the early lyrics for new album track ‘Dylan And Caitlin’ (now a lush and romantic duet with the opulent voice of The Anchoress), but beyond that he admitted that he was in need of inspiration.
In the interim years, Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore were still working away on ‘classic and melodious’ Manics material, but the band were hit by delays in needing to build a new studio after developers kicked them out of their Cardiff HQ. In 2017, Wire made headlines when he said that he wasn’t sure if the Manics would even make another album – claiming that they’d been “sapped of their creative juices”. Was that just Nicky going rogue or was there genuine doubt?
“I think it was a bit of all those things actually,” Bradfield tells NME. “He does go through a complicated process in his own head every time we start a new album. That’s when he’s looking at lyrics and music and coming up with his own strategy for coping and dealing with things.
“He went through a tough time with his mother’s illness, which doesn’t make things easy obviously. I’ve also been aware that as a band, we’re closer to the end than we are the beginning.”
Wire continues: “I was ravaged with doubt. I spend a lot of my time being ravaged my doubt. I don’t know if it’s an age thing. You just always think that you’re one step away from going wrong or questioning your relevance. I wish I could be as supremely confident as I was when I was 19 – or as deluded, whichever it was.”
However, just a month later their comeback was announced with ‘Resistance Is Futile’. Shortly after Wire aired his doubts, the band penned finished the glorious, energised ‘widescreen melancholia’ of ‘International Blue’ – an ode to the vision of French artist Yves Klein. That fuelled the remainder of ‘Resistance Is Futile’ – a record that’s a slave to melody, with one half dealing with “survival, memory and loss”, and the other finding joy and inspiration elsewhere.
“It’s definitely not nostalgic, it’s not hankering back to some golden age,” says Wire of the ‘character’ of the album. “It’s just a cold look to things that are gone that are never going to be filled again. A reminder that you should cherish certain things before they disappear forever – but also survival in terms of us navigating our way through our personal and band lives and trying to keep everything together.”
“We’re trying to stimulate ourselves and the outside world, while passing on those things that have made our lives so much better. That passion and love that we want to pass on to an audience.”
Bradfield agrees: “It’s a record trying to counsel itself – between finding inspiration and trying to make sense of things that don’t even want to be disentangled any more. You know, whether it be politics, whether it be culture, the economy, anything. You’re standing and looking at a morass of interchangeable, Janus-headed fusion of utter fucked-upness. You’ve got the Left attacking itself, Labour voters attacking each other, Tory voters attacking each other, Ken Clarke attacking Theresa May and then not even knowing if Theresa May’s heart is really in Brexit. It really is just so intractable, it’s unbelievable – every way you look at it.”
Of their internal struggles, you have opener ‘People Give In’, on which they mourn for man growing tired, old, forgotten and being sold. But rather than collapsing under the weight of the sorrow of how “there is no theory of everything”, the band gloriously rise from the ashes – driven by their hardened will just to exist and grow stronger. Then there’s ‘Distant Colours’, a Bradfield-penned lyric telling the “overarching message of how culture has become so transient”, not knowing his place and existing in a ‘cold war for the mind’. The lush abandon of ‘Hold Me Like A Heaven’ makes for a true album highlight, as the band come as close to hope as the Manics possibly can when they admit: “I hate the world more than I hate myself”.
You’ll find the standard Manics muse and of cultural landmarks within the aforementioned ‘International Blue’ and ‘Dylan And Caitlin’, but also on the joyous, arena-ready ‘Vivian’, as they adopt the character of nanny-turned-street photographer Vivian Maier – a kindred spirit who lived without compromised history. Then of course there’s the 100 percent Wire composition of ‘Liverpool Revisited’, looking to the North East. Whereas ‘SYMM [South Yorkshire Mass Murderer]’ from 1998’s ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ was a song lost, lonely and aghast in the horror of the Hillsborough disaster and subsequent corruption, here Wire’s words celebrate the brotherhood, defiance and tenacity of the people of Liverpool in their victory for the lost 96. It’s loaded with enough pure joy and chest-bursting soul to sit up there with ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ as a new anthem for the good people of the Mersey.
Beyond that, if ‘Resistance Is Futile’ is political at all, it’s certainly with a lower-case P. The bewildering and constant barrage of surreal and hyperreal happenings in current events are too bewildering for Wire to even put into a digestible sentence – let alone a banging chorus. Don’t expect a Brexit anthem, a tear-down of Trump or an analysis of Jeremy Corbyn on a Manics record any time soon.
“My nuanced and over-intellectualised views on it just do not fit into any format any more,” admits Wire. “There is no format for my brain.”
I put to him a Stewart Lee quote about his convoluted comedy style making him ill-equipped to create “content”…
“If I could steal that, I fucking would,” laughs Wire. “That is a brilliant quote. I know what I stand against. Everything we’ve stood for has failed in those terms. I don’t trust my own judgement on that level.”
Another reason for the lack of party politics on ‘Resistance Is Futile’ is that there has been a seismic shift in power. A foreboding premonition of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the ‘Gold Against The Soul’-esque guitar shred fury of ‘Broken Algorithms’ is the closest the band come to raging against the machine, but this time it’s the actual machines. Those who control your data and the flow of your newsfeed are now the ineradicable gatekeepers of power.
“It is overwhelming at just how much untruth is out there,” sighs Wire. “Tech companies frighten me more than politicians. They drive this dystopian ideal. It’s great for them because they know that everyone runs for the comfort of their virtual life. They’re more than happy to push the ideal of a world in chaos and political strife. It just makes everyone run for their mobile phone. That’s why they do nothing about it. They have no desire to control any kind of hatred of any of their platforms.”
“They’re like the people that worked to split the atom who then realised it would be used to potentially destroy the world. As long as democracy doesn’t crumble, politicians can be gotten rid of. These people can’t.”
Bradfield meanwhile, is pragmatic in mapping their anchorage to the physical world to being symptomatic of their success, and essential to why they continue to find new fans in each new generation.
“We’ve always liked to break ranks,” says Bradfield. “That’s why Nick called our  album ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ [a quote by Welsh Labour Party hero, Aneurin Bevan]. It says ‘This Is MY Truth, now TELL ME YOURS’,” (Bradfield is shouting now). “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.
“That’s what goes on in the heads of our audiences. They like to counsel themselves outside of the fashion, outside of the soundbites, outside of the popular vote. They want to break ranks and go beyond what the prescribed truth is. Whether that’s in politics or taking down a sacred cow.”
‘Resistance In Futile’ is the Manics striving in their own world. While making the album, Bradfield told us his two ambitions were to ‘rock again’ and to “kick against the oblique, delineated, opaque groove that everybody is into”. NME couldn’t help but ask what the fuck that meant.
“There are so many producers that have taken over music,” spits Bradfield. “There are so many co-writers that have taken over fucking music. If you’re in a band, you should not have co-writers. You should not have producers re-structuring your songs. You should fucking stand on your own two fucking feet.”
Fair enough. In summarising ‘Resistance Is Futile’, the NME review stated: “The band who once told you to ‘Know Your Enemy’ now realise that the enemy is omnipresent and yet also unknowable. Still, the Manics are kicking against the pricks just as hard as ever. In their existence alone the Manics continue to fight the good fight – but the sheer scale, pomp and balls of this record render their survival alone an absolute victory. Resistance may be futile, but the Manics are advancing rather than in retreat.”
Reviews aside, the band still believe in translating art into ‘mass communication’ – and fear that their “aggressively competitive” attitude will leave them “bitterly disappointed” when it comes to chart placings…
“It’s unlikely that we’re going to beat ‘The Greatest Showman’ soundtrack,” laughs Wire. “In the past we’ve had four Number Two albums. We’ve lost out to George Michael, Arctic Monkeys, Ed Sheeran – all gigantic acts. It would be a bitter pill this time to lose out to a soundtrack about a fucking circus. But who knows?”
But has Nicky exorcised his demons of doubt? Can he imagine the next Manics album on the horizon?
“No, I genuinely can’t. I’m writing words and stuff already, but I can’t. However with the constant spiral of insatiable content desire, it does still play on your mind. You know, what do you do next? I’d never say that things were better in the past, but now we just need to readjust to make sure we stay vaguely on top of it.
“I’m not one for nostalgia at all, I’m just one for looking at the brutality of fact. There is a hunger for romance. There’s a hunger for some kind of rock n’ roll lineage that you may not think exists any more, but is definitely out there.”
So back to that image of The Last Samurai – is the war over? On Generation Terrorists they leapt from the trenches by declaring ‘You Love Us’. At the turn of the century with unlikely No.1 single ‘The Masses Against The Classes’, they renewed their manifesto and stated that they weren’t going anywhere. ‘Futurology’ heard the battle-cry of ‘Let’s Go To War’ once more. Has the defiance of ‘Resistance Is Futile’ and the world’s desire for it rekindled their bloodlust?
“It’s given us a hunger for the fight,” Wire concedes. “Realising that your ideas are still entering the stratosphere of importance makes it all worthwhile.”
Amen. This is the close to the truth as you’re going to get – and what could be more beautiful than that?