After taking a brief pause to survey the past, the Manic Street Preachers lunge back into the future.
"We'll come back one day / We never really went away."
Comeback rhetoric is one thing, but I truly hate it when the press touts the "return" of a band that never really went away in the first place. Rock bands that have managed to sustain themselves for at least 20 years and release an album every three years or so are common victims of this kind of chatter. They make an album, the press says they are "back", they make their next album, the press says they have "returned". The band ends up living in a constant state of "coming back" rather than just occupying the present.
Wales's Manic Street Preachers is one of those bands who, upon releasing a new album, are treated by the music press as if they were lost in the wilderness for too long. But despite the Manics initial claim that they were going to make one album then disband, they've gone on to release their 12th album Futurology just ten months after their previous one, Rewind the Film. That's not bad for a 28-year-old band with a penchant for self-sabotage and who mysteriously lost one of their members to the ether of self-destructive rock legends. At this point, an album like Futurology doesn't even have to be that good if the band just wants to maintain their status of elder statesmen of the punk-transplanted-for-the-stadium sect. Luckily for us the Manics still take their career very seriously, because Futurology can just about stand toe-to-toe with any of their past albums. Even if it doesn't surpass any of their "classics" (pick one), it's comes close enough that you won't really care.
Since it comes hot off the heels of Rewind the Film, it's easy to think of Futurology as its sister album. It's likely the songs were written right around the same time, but that's about all of the similarities you can squeeze out of that pair. Rewind the Film was the album where the Manics' protagonist poured himself a scotch on the rocks, sat down in his easy chair, and scanned his back story. He looked inward and realized that he missed the Tokyo skyline, reflective stuff like that. Now that Futurology has hit the present, the same man has vacated his chair, dumped the contents of his glass into the sink and left the house in a restless huff. He mutters to himself "What is wrong with everyone? What is wrong with me?"
Singer James Dean Bradfield sets his guitar to "scorch" and brings his voice back to its shouting-in-tune range. Bassist Nicky Wire's lyrics turn outward to the geopolitcal once again. Drummer Sean Moore holds it all down without so much as a flinch. Many guests come and go through the studio, including Cian Ciaran of the Super Furry Animals, Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, Georgia Ruth and German actress Nina Hoss. Cate Le Bon returns from another cameo after lending a hand to Rewind the Film and co-producer Loz Williams provides some keys. But it's misleading to say that Futurology is a peverse reaction to a delicate album that preceded it. There's more at work here than just fast 'n' loud.
Futurology's first five songs maintain a high gear, though they all go about it in different ways. The title song, relatively brief at 3:05, are double doors opening to the sunshine. But the future isn't always that bright as "Futurology" reminds us that we've all killed ants in our lifetime and that "One day we will return / No matter how much it hurts." "Walk Me to the Bridge", the album's first single, functions better as a piece of Futurology than something you can grant a passing click on YouTube. Like the track before it, "Bridge's" troubling lyrics get paired up with brisk pop music complete with synthesizers and a hard driving rhythm. "So long my fatal friend / I don't need this," barks Bradfield at the top of his voice, masking the suicide that may or may not take place.
Bassist/lyricist Wire described the next track "Let's Go to War" as a "nice marching song". Normally I do my best to ignore whatever Nicky Wire has to say about an upcoming Manics album because, most of the time, his comments come out sounding silly. What he has to say about "Let's Go to War" isn't entirely wrong. "Working class skeletons / Lie scattered in museums" is not a lyric I would consider to be "nice", but the song at least makes its point -- that the illusion of warfare boosting national moral is a dangerous way to run things. The music revolves around two chromatically opposed figures, one of which sounds like it's paraphrasing one-third of "In the Hall of the Mountain King". The song's title is chanted by many overdubbed voices, eerily mimicking a political rally.
The tempo tips up again for "The Next Jet to Leave Moscow", a song that superbly reflects what Colin Newman described as "tunes with zoom" -- sleek with brevity and themes of travel, though the mention of a "silly little fucker" isn't exactly aloof. "Europa Geht Durch Mich", featuring Nina Hoss singing the German portion of the lyrics, beings by stating that "Europe had a language problem", but drags the problem back to the present with "communication disappearing". As Moore makes almost every beat a downbeat, a digital elephant gives a swiftly ascending trumpet call every eight beats. German and English fly all around the mix though the lyrics they are singing are a plea to get everyone under one umbrella for these "European dreams, European screams."
"Divine Youth", sung mostly by Welsh musician Georgia Ruth, is the moment where Futurology slows down considerably by introducing a track that doesn't sound like it belongs. And though it is slow and quiet, the overall impression one can take from "Divine Youth" is the bright sound not unlike the obfuscated sunshine depicted on Futurology's cover. Less of a fit is "Between the Clock and the Bed", and not just because of Green Gartside's contributions. The breathy soul in his voice does seem at odds with what the Manics were accomplishing on the first half of the album. But hey, if these guys could make room for Ian McCulloch on Postcards from a Young Man, then why not do the same for the guy from Scritti Politti? However the band altered their musical approach for "Between the Clock and the Bed" that seems just so odd for them. Moore's snare has been tweaked to a gated pong (remember "Escapade" by Janet Jackson?) and the musical arrangement itself has been polished to a point where I can't objectively say if it's a good thing or not. But "Divine Youth" and "Between the Clock and the Bed" are not without their merits, especially for the Manics fans who didn't find Lifeblood to be too laid back or Know Your Enemy to be too bloated.
Besides, the second half Futurology still has its pulverizing moments, like when Bradfield channels his inner-David Byrne for the verses of "Sex, Power, Love and Money". "Misguided Missile", a close musical cousin to "The Next Jet to Leave Moscow", gets to rhyme "I am the strum and drang / I am the schaden freude" with "I can still fill your void." And what's really a treat is when the Manics get in their cardio with one instrumental and one quasi-instrumental. "Dreaming a City (Hughesovka)" simmers and shimmers with a tense combination of a single-line guitar and burbling keyboards, but "Mayakovsky" is the boiling point. Closing out Futurology, this is where James Dean Bradfield wisely ignores the career advice of bandmate Nicky Wire to "stop wanking" and uses his guitar to mow down the competition -- whoever that may be (I call it a "quasi-instrumental" because the only lyrics are when the title is chanted intermittently).
Since the Manic Street Preachers have been around for so very long, the benchmarks of their career have already been set. No fans are going to feel like knocking The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go from their pedestals. But in a more flexible world, the Manic Street Preachers of the 21st century would be rightly recognized for the vitality of their performances and the consistency of their songwriting. You could say that Futurology is yet another culmination of both these traits. No, they never really went away. They've been under your nose the whole time, creating unfashionable music that will never age.