There’s life in the old dogs yet. It’s been thirty-two years since the Manic Street Preachers played their first-ever gig in Blackwood, Wales. It’s twenty-nine since they released their first-ever album “Generations Terrorists” through Sony. Since then, they’ve grown up, lost a band member, experienced fatherhood and then middle age, and seen the world change around them. They’ve watched almost all of their peers fall by the wayside, but they never have. Now, Wales’ own Manic Street Preachers are preparing to release their fourteenth album, “The Ultra Vivid Lament.”
The longevity of the Manics is made all the more amazing by the fact that they’ve never split up. Around the time of their first and second albums, the members of the Manics (James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire, Sean Moore and the still-missing Richey Edwards, for those counting) spoke openly about idolising Guns n’ Roses. Technically speaking, Guns n’ Roses still exist, but they’ve only semi-recently returned to their original lineup, and there have been long periods of inactivity between albums and tours. The Manics have never stopped. Even when Richey Edwards went missing, they were back within twelve months. At one point in the distant past, their plan was to release one album and then split up. Instead, they’ve stuck to the grind for three decades.
Perhaps their relentless application to the task of making and playing music has a little to do with the fact that they’ve never quite had the same profile as Guns n’ Roses. Guns n’ Roses is a mega marketing machine. They don’t need to tour because of all their image rights. There is, for example, an official online slots game based on Guns n’ Roses and the band’s music making big money at online slots websites even as you read this. The Manics have had number one singles and albums in the UK, but they’ve never been big enough on a global scale for someone to make an online slots game about them. They might once have called themselves “the band that likes to say yes” when it comes to making money, but you won’t see Nicky Wire at Rose Slots NZ. The very thought of such a thing is faintly ridiculous. The Manics don’t make music to spin the reels by – they make music that makes you think.
The remaining members of the band are in their fifties now. Gone is the swagger of their youth and the pomposity of their early albums. The Manic Street Preachers don’t write punk songs anymore – they’re more likely to write ballads. They’re still as politically-minded and irritated by the establishment as they ever were, but they no longer want to burn everything down. The political content of the most recent Manics recordings has been little more than a despairing “tut” – an expression of annoyance and bewilderment at the status quo coupled with an acknowledgement that they can’t do anything about it. That sentiment is all over their new single “Orwellian,” which also serves as a preview track for the whole album. It’s undeniably a Manic Street Preachers single, but it’s not like any Manic Street Preachers single you’ve heard before.
For a band that’s often referred back to the work of George Orwell in both their lyrics and their imagery, for the Manics to actually name a song “Orwellian” is a little “on the nose.” The central theme of the song is, as you may have guessed from the title, the idea that we’re now living in the era that Orwell wrote about in his seminal novel “1984.” A few literature critics have taken issue with the title on account of the fact that Orwell wasn’t extolling the benefits of such a system, and so “Orwellian” is a misnomer. We’ll let that slide. The song itself is standard Manics fare from a lyrical perspective, with references to book burning, living through an apocalypse, and the power of words as weapons. Like the song’s title, the lyrics are a little “paint by numbers” if you know the band’s history. It’s not the words that make the song remarkable – it’s the lyrics.
There is a guitar solo in “Orwellian,” but you’d have to listen very closely to hear it. It’s hidden under layer upon layer of piano, all played by James Dean Bradfield. By his own admission, Bradfield was listening to a lot of ABBA when he wrote the new album, and it influenced him. Most musicians would shy away from attempting to recreate the piano-led pop magic of ABBA. It would never even occur to most rock guitarists to try. Bradfield is bold enough to give it a go, and it somehow works. This isn’t a stadium rock song, and you’ll most likely never heard it on a major radio station, but it has a hook that manages to worm its way into your consciousness and stay there for the rest of the day. If this is the tone of the rest of the album, then it will comfortably be the most “middle-aged” sounding record that the band has ever created – and yet perhaps the most uplifting.
For reasons best known to themselves, the band has decided to go with a long lead-in time between the single and the album. “Orwellian” is available now, but “The Ultra Vivid Lament” won’t join it until early September. By that time, the always-active band will already be out on tour. We haven’t heard any of the other ten tracks on the album yet, but we do know their titles. “Into the Waves of Love,” “Happy Bored Alone,” “Quest for Ancient Colour,” and “Still Snowing in Sapporo” are titles that, to us at least, suggest an introspective tone. When the Manics released their tenth album “Postcards From A Young Man” in 2010, Wire described it as the band’s “last attempt at mass communication.” They’re not writing for a global audience anymore – they’re writing for themselves. These are not the Manic Street Preachers you grew up with, but there’s still a vibrancy about them that makes them essential listening. The album should be fascinating.