Opener ‘Still Snowing In Sapporo’ sets the scene: it’s 1993, the Manic Street Preachers are on tour in Japan — in a city famous for beer, skiing and the annual Sapporo Snow festival. “There are no holes in my recollections,” claims James Dean Bradfield’s vocal, which is draped over a woozy, electronic melody drenched in plenty of reverb. Recalling a memory two years prior to the disappearance of guitarist Richey Edwards, this song is a snapshot of a moment in time — a historical record.
‘Diapause’ reflects the transient nature of memories like this one with the line “I view you like a statue” contrasting a durable historical record with an impermanent — and fallible — human memory. However much we might like to fix certain memories in place forever, the human brain is susceptible to all sorts of diseases and memory-altering conditions. To counter this, we take things we want to remember and we turn them into objects: statues, books, photographs, diary entries — and for the artistically inclined, songs or paintings.
But, sometimes despite our best efforts, even these records can be imperfect. As album closer ‘Afterending’ suggests “The statues crack and drown”. Bristolians in particular can attest to that, with the Edward Colston statue toppled by protestors during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, months prior to the recording of The Ultra Vivid Lament in late 2020/early 2021. Meanings change as time goes by. Books and other forms of historical record such as diaries can be totally destroyed too — ‘Orwellian’ paints a picture of 1933 Nazi Germany, with its Ray Bradbury-esque world where “the books begin to burn”.
‘The Secret He Had Missed’ features Julia Cumming of Sunflower Bean, and focuses on the wildly different 19th-century artist siblings Gwen and Augustus John. A ‘what if’ song about loss and a longing to rewrite the past, with lines “If only we could meet again / We could find a different end”, there’s a sense of futility: man is cast as victim, helplessly beholden to the passage of time, where regrets are as inevitable as aging is. As a whole, then, The Ultra Vivid Lament is preoccupied with permanence.
The Welsh band’s fourteenth studio album — like so many other records being released this year — is a historic capsule of artistic creation during a time of international isolation. But, as ‘Happy Bored Alone’ suggests, artists like the Manics are predisposed to solitude and boredom. The song suggests a new age of creativity, framing lockdown boredom as “Infinite loyal and sublime / It leads me to a higher plane”. In ‘Into The Waves Of Love’, language is “a virus without reason” and on ‘Happy Bored Alone’ Bradfield recalls “praying to a godless sky”; with such treatises on prioritising reason over rumour, and science over blind faith, it’s hard not to read The Ultra Vivid Lament as signalling a new Age of Enlightenment.
Like many Manics albums — see Generation Terrorists, Everything Must Go, and Send Away The Tigers — The Ultra Vivid Lament is preoccupied with time and history. But while previous Manics songs focus on precise historical moments and figures, there’s a timeless quality to the new record, with very little filler — along with an eerie sense we’ve heard it all before. Indeed, we have. Not only does the record borrow sonically from ABBA and Echo and the Bunnymen, but thematically it’s got a lot in common with Radiohead’s 1997 album, OK Computer, which was a chillingly accurate assessment of an increasingly digital world.
On The Ultra Vivid Lament, the Manics are also hostile to technological innovation: the album’s first single, ‘Orwellian’ is “about the battle to claim meaning, the erasing of context within debate, and the overriding sense of factional conflict driven by digital platforms leading to a perpetual state of culture war” — sentiments echoed in ‘Complicated Illusions’, where online binaries of ‘left’ and ‘right’ and ‘gammon’ and ‘snowflake’ are rejected in favour of nuance: “I defend the middle ground.”
On ‘Quest for Ancient’, which has echoes of Queen and Elton John, Bradfield declares: “Modern life was killed and crushed / By a derelict digitised love.” In ‘Blank Diary Entry’, which features the gruff vocals of Mark Lanegan, pain is anthropomorphised as a crying man “wrapped in several kinds of skin / seeking consolation in machines” — and in the midst of a global mental health crisis, where we’re all glued to our phones, it’s hard to refute the point. This is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, set to piano — a first for the band, who usually conceive records on the guitar.
It wouldn’t be a Manics album without a few political digs too — see the call to arms in ‘Don’t Let The Night Divide Us’, which calls for listeners to reject propaganda, with its Kaiser Chief-esque refrain of “Don’t let those boys from Eton / Suggest that we are beaten” evoking not just our current mop-haired prime minister, but countless other politicians throughout history. By painting a mental portrait of someone whose image is at this point burned into our retinas thanks to the last year and a half of coronavirus briefings, The Ultra Vivid Lament cements itself firmly in the present.
The Ultra Vivid Lament is a record of a very specific point in time: a year where the world was gripped by death and decay, as our social fabric frayed. But, at the same time, it’s a record of what is still to come. After all, in the band’s own words “the near future has been and gone”…
The Ultra Vivid Lament is out on 10 September on Columbia/Sony, and is available to order here.
Words by Beth Kirkbride
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