Manic Street Preachers: “We talked ourselves through oblivion”
If ever there was a band built to weather the storm of a pandemic and lockdown, it’s Manic Street Preachers. On the political glam-punk explosion of their 1992 debut album ‘Generation Terrorists’, they sang of living in the glow of “neon loneliness” on a diet of “culture, alienation, boredom and despair”. These are themes that have run throughout their 35-year career and soon-to-be 14 albums – from their early days as Kohl-eyed dolls in the forgotten Welsh valley mining town of Blackwood to becoming the tragedy-stricken polemists of ‘The Holy Bible’ and later stadium-filling Britpop outsiders.
As bassist, lyricist and band strategist Nicky Wire tells NME today, they’re well-versed in feeling apart from everything else. “I’m a very patient and lonely person,” he admits. “I can deal with isolation and have always embraced utter boredom quite easily. You see the tragedy and agony unfolding around you and it feels a bit glib to say something like that.”
New album ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ is certainly not a COVID album, but one born of a certain shared emotional landscape. Frontman James Dean Bradfield had previously said that writing songs about lockdown would be “adding insult to injury” given that we’ve all been sat stewing in this new reality for long enough. Instead, they used music as a means to question what was real and what was not. For once there was no soapbox and no manifesto, just music and the search for a reason to exist.
“To actually have a theory about life or a loose concept that you could hang a record on seemed impossible,” Bradfield tells NME. “The escape was literally checking to see that the world around you wasn’t crumbling when you wrote a song. Lockdown had the element of a waking dream for a lot of people, especially the first one last year. Writing music was a way of pinching myself to say, ‘There’s still a part of life that works in the same way that it did, albeit in a strange way’.”
That hazy dream-state sensation led to the Manics creating one of their most spacious and ethereal works to date. It’s in sharp contrast to 2018 predecessor ‘Resistance Is Futile’, which was a trad Manics tour-de-force rush of arena pomp – or, as Wire calls it: “a big, bold, technicolour pick and mix, a plotted history of Manic Street Preachers”.
While still anthemic, ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ has much more of a tender, delicate and subtle approach. Bradfield compares it to “the element of being lost in a snowglobe” – but this isn’t the Manics’ Enya-inspired bath-time album. Wire says it blends the punk spirit of ‘London Calling’ era The Clash with the elegiac grace of ABBA‘s ‘Waterloo’ and the sleepy sadness of Echo & The Bunnymen’s ‘Bring On The Dancing Horses’. “It’s what we would call pop in our world,” he says, “It’s that glacial kind of controlled energy that comes out in something melancholic, but uplifting.”
The album is still driven by drama and a sense of compulsion, taking the experimental energy previously explored on 2004’s frosty flop ‘Lifeblood’ and 2014’s career-high of European modernism ‘Futurology’, with what Wire calls “traces of high futurism”.
Opener ‘Still Snowing In Sapporo’ uses some eerie post-rock soundscapes to evoke fever dream memories of the happier times of the band’s 1993 Japanese tour, before blooming into a rushing bullet-train chorus. ‘Quest For Ancient Colour’ dances like ABBA’s best heartbroken dancefloor moments but decorated by some space-age guitar work, while ‘Diapause’ has echoes of Bowie’s retro-futuristic ‘Low’ era. ‘Orwellian’, ‘The Secret He Had Missed’ and ‘Into The Waves Of Love’ still carry the DNA of the aching arena Manics you love, but with a tad more Scandi-pop restraint and a sci-fi sheen.
Bradfield allowed for that moody sense of space by starting the songs on piano rather than guitar, as he did with his 2020 solo album ‘Even In Exile’, and having the listener really focus on the words, which he hails as “most concise and beautiful set of lyrics that Nick had given me in over 10 years”. A mixture of sadness and love hangs over the record, with Wire having lost both his parents in recent years. The lyricist admits that this time the words are “definitely an exploration of internal galaxies” with him “digging deeper into himself” and looking through his own personal filter of the world. “I got so bombarded – as we all do – with opinion, all the time, that I retreated into myself on this,” he tells us.
You can hear that on ‘Into The Waves Of Love’ where he begs for “the pleasures that God gave up,” before barking back with “Don’t try and sell me a universal truth – I’m all given up on listening to you”.
The questioning of truth is arguably what lays at the core of this album. ‘Complicated Illusions’ decries how “even the answers that I dream are riddled with doubt and holes” while the oh-so-Manics-titled ‘Orwellian’ questions this age of cancel culture and cultural revisionism where “the future fights the past” and “words wage war with meanings being missed”. The Manics are still in the trenches, but in this age of social media mistruths and political colours being lost in the wash, the enemy is ultimately unknown.
“It’s much more about the general culture wars, the tone of debate, the digital hysteria and the dangerous nature of everything we say,” says Wire. “It’s about a paralysis of the mind. I think J.G. Ballard called it ‘the inner migration’. That’s what I was getting at.”
One familiar target does emerge, however, on ‘Don’t Let The Night Divide Us’, with the brilliantly bitter sing-along line: ‘Don’t let those boys from Eton suggest that we are beaten’. While the band have always been very vocally and staunchly old-school socialists, Bradfield says that this time that lyric and message is delivered with “a bit more humorous abandon” than it would have been back when they were 22-year-old sloganeering agitators, but there are still chips on their shoulders.
“It’s not just us saying, ‘Hey, you guys over there – don’t forget we’re backstreet kids and still stood here so watch your fucking step, mate’,” says Bradfield. “It’s more a nod and a wink. It’s us saying, ‘Don’t think you’re going to have your own way because we still have something up our sleeves’. The working-classes will still give you an amazing band; they’ll still give you an amazing writer.”
He continues: “It does seem like the upper echelons of society have tipped the cultural scales too heavily in their favour. That line is not talking about class war, it’s just saying that once the balance has been tipped towards an egregious amount of privilege being displayed, then inevitably it must swing back the other way at some point. When it does, you’ll see something good.”
The Manics do still see hope sprouting from younger generations of artists, though. The 52-year-old Wire fawns over the soulful lyricism of Arlo Parks, the wonky industrial synth-punk of Yorkshire’s Working Men’s Club and arty indie-pop Domino signees Wet Leg, while also shouting out The Anchoress, Wolf Alice and Sharon Van Etten. For a man who once said he “detests every other musician I’ve ever met” (while former now missing-presumed-dead bandmate Richey Edwards made headlines with the quip, “I hate Slowdive more than Hiter”), this seems unusually positive about the current musical landscape. Are there any artists out there that Wire truly can’t abide?
“I don’t deal with hate anymore!” he laughs. “As Virgina Woolf said, ‘To enjoy freedom, we have to control ourselves’. That is my mantra these days…” A pregnant pause. “You know I’m obviously lying to you!”
“I don’t deal with hate anymore! As Virgina Woolf said, ‘To enjoy freedom, we have to control ourselves’” – Nicky Wire
Still, at least their peacemaking with artists at large has brought us some tremendous collaborations. Since The Cardigans‘ Nina Pearsson joined them on their stonking 2007 comeback single ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’, the band have embarked on a lineage of cracking duets with the likes of Richard Hawley, Lucy Rose, Cate Le Bon, Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, German actress Nina Hoss and fellow Welsh pop-noir maestro The Anchoress. This time, ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ sees them welcome Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming on ‘The Secret He Had Missed’ while grunge icon Mark Lanegan lends guest vocals on ‘Blank Diary Entry’.
“Nick was really fiercely getting into Sunflower Bean about four years ago,” says Bradfield, before chuckling, “then he had that A level moment where he was like, ‘I’ve found this band and they’re my band!’” Carrying on a tradition they’ve had since they formed the Manics in their teens when they “traded bands like Panini stickers”, Wire shared his love of the dream-pop band’s second album ‘Twenty Two In Blue’ (which he hails as “one of my favourite records of all time”) and Cumming came to add the perfectly controlled but ultra-feeling guest vocal on ‘The Secret He Had Missed’. Duetting against Bradfield, she provides the female counterpart on a song about the wildly different lives and worldviews of the celebrated sibling Welsh painters Augustus and Gwen John, who grew to fame at the turn of the 20th Century.
It was Bradfield and drummer Sean Moore meanwhile, who brought Lanegan to the table with him as “the only name in mind” for ‘Blank Diary Entry’. “I’ve met him a fair few times and have a little bit of a connection,” says Bradfield. “I’m five-foot-six and he’s nearly nine-foot tall. It looks a bit like R2D2 and Chewbacca when we walk side by side.”
Bradfield and the demonic gravel-voiced troubadour have kept in touch ever since the Manics and Screaming Trees supported Oasis on their infamously chaotic 1996 US tour, which crept back into headlines last year with the release of Lanegan’s memoir Sing Backwards And Weep. In the book, Lanegan wrote that a clash arose after Liam Gallagher mocked the band backstage. Gallagher later called him an “uptight junkie” on Twitter before Lanegan slammed him as “a dickhead” who was “trying to make like you’re hard”. In the interests of balance, we ask the Manics about their memory of that fabled tour.
“I was there when that happened!” chuckles Nicky, devilishly. “It was in catering, and Liam was calling them something like The Barking Branches and The Crazy Conkers. Mark was a very bruised individual at that point. “It was a great tour. We just sat back and watched Oasis teetering on the edge and cancelling gigs. For once, we were the stable part of the touring party! It was the first time we’d had success on a global scale and we were enjoying it.”
Bradfield meanwhile, fondly remembers The Screaming Trees for their “bitter edge”, adding that “there was as much tension within their band as they were turning out unto the world. I like it when you see a band and it’s as if they’re almost falling apart on stage. We’ve been that band sometimes too.”
So, are the Manics Team Liam or Team Mark?
“I’ve got a lot of time for Liam and Mark!” Bradfield replies, very diplomatically. “Well, that’s probably the one and only time I was diplomatic!”
“At some point you start realising that the middle-ground is where the battle is fought” – James Dean Bradfield
Reason does seem to be the order of the day with Manic Street Preachers in 2021. The once-kamikaze band who found enemies at every turn and vowed to sell 16 million copies of their debut album before splitting up in a blaze of glory now seem defiant in their existence alone, rather than adding to the deafening noise of ongoing culture wars.
“I am 52 and flag-in-the-ground statements are not the easiest stances to take,” admits Bradfield, before quoting Wire’s lyric “I don’t believe in absolutes anymore” from 2010’s ‘Postcards From A Young Man’. “When you get to a certain age, you realise that’s true. A lot of life is in the middle ground – be it culturally, politically, personally. The spirit of compromise makes a band work. It can make a marriage work and it can make a country work. As cool and as extreme as you want to be when you’re young, at some point you start realising that the middle ground is where the battle is fought.”
Crikey, the band who once played Cuba and shook hands with Fidel Castro haven’t gone full M.O.R. Nick Clegg, have they? “It doesn’t mean that you need to make compromises or water yourself down,” asserts Bradfield. “You don’t have to compromise yourself to death.”
That’s a relief. For a band who have survived so much, it would take something pretty seismic to corrupt their vision or knock them off course. This record aside, Wire has a “jazz-meets-C86” solo album in the can, and they’re also planning an epic 20th anniversary reissue of their most divisive album, 2001’s ‘Know Your Enemy’. Age has not wearied them, nor have the years of COVID condemned. The Manics are still raging against the dying of the light, but on a battlefield of their own design.
“When you’ve been together this long and know each other this much, it becomes much more about communication through instinct and discovering that natural way of making songs,” adds Wire. “We have talked ourselves through oblivion, the three of us. I can’t describe it any other way.”
– The Ultra Vivid Lament’ is out September 10 via Columbia/Sony