Their terrorist generation have long since given up hope on Manic Street Preachers growing old disgracefully, but at least they’re growing old imaginatively. Recognising MOR arena rock as a (lucrative) creative dead end, since 2007’s glam-punk Send Away The Tigers they’ve been approaching each new album as a self-imposed stylistic challenge.
The Holy Bible successfully completes therapy? 2009’s Journal For Plague Lovers. Pomp-metal Motown? 2010’s Postcards From A Young Man. Cinematic horizon-gazing? 2013’s Rewind The Film. Arena (kraut) rock? The following year’s Futurology. If 2018’s Resistance Is Futile acted as a centring exercise, revisiting a variety of styles from the band’s 30 years, this album spins the wheel again.
This time, ‘ambient stadium-ABBA’. Dancing Queen pianos and synths made primarily of glitter merge with airy modernist atmospherics and traditional Manics bombast rock, even when tackling such imposing topics as the savage, truth-skewing entrenchments of the online culture war or pandemic apocalypse.
Had Sweden’s pop titans ever sung a synth-pop power ballad about the pros and cons of Marxist structuralism or biographed early 20th-century sibling artists Gwen and Augustus John in the form of superbly catchy boy/girl disco rock, they would have been Complicated Illusions and The Secret He Had Missed respectively.
From a band well-versed in giving populism dark twists, it’s unsurprisingly enthralling. A global health crisis during which socialism became demonised and fascist white supremacists literally tried to overthrow democracy should provide rich political pickings for the Manics.
And sure enough there are rebel entreaties not to ‘let those boys from Eton suggest that we are beaten’ on Don’t Let The Night Divide Us, and, in Afterending, the insightful observation that ‘progress is a comfortable disease that brought us down to our knees’. But they often seem as confused, hopeless and despondent about 2021 as the rest of us.
Diapause finds James Dean Bradfield lost in grief; on the Elton-esque Quest For Ancient Colour he’s caught in corona stress dreams. Blank Diary Entry and Happy Bored Alone reflect the emotional mood swings and toxic online environments of 2020 and, in the spirit of lockdown reflection, Snowing In Sapporo throws back to a tour of Japan in 1993, musing regretfully: ‘How could four become so strong, yet break and leave too soon?’
Covid fog has infected even our sharpest minds. Thank heaven so much of Ultra Vivid Lament sounds like the mirror ball at the end of the tunnel.