Some bands aren’t built for middle age. Some bands ignite and roar, existing on the oxygen of scorching, youthful energy and blazing self-belief before fizzling out as they sputter and crackle to their inevitable end. When the Manic Street Preachers burst out of Blackwood, South Wales with the spiky, sloganeering glam-punk of Generation Terrorists, it was inconceivable that the band would make it further than the end of the decade, but here they are, triumphantly advancing to almost their fourth decade as a band.
After the commercial self-destruction of Know Your Enemy, the band have been on something of a roll since the glorious rebirth of Send Away the Tigers. In 2014 they produced their most positive and confident album yet with Futurology, a bold refashioning of their sound as they framed an intellectual celebration of European art movements around angular, 1980s post-punk.
However, post-Futurology the band have had to address one fundamental question. Having covered all of their influences from the Clash to Simple Minds over the course of 12 albums, and with main lyricist Nicky Wire having exhausted himself with an academic’s approach to the lyrics on that album, Where could they possibly go next?
Fortunately, they have put any doubts to one side, turned on the taps and let the creative juices flow, flooding the senses with one of the most melodic and immediate albums in their catalogue. Never ones for stylistic repetition the sound of the album references various points in their career but sounds like no other album in their canon.
Kicking off with “People Give In”, the song could almost be addressing this move to middle age as it opens with the line, “people get tired / people get old”. Musically it’s built around an artfully constructed mix of chugging cello, keyboards, and a slightly off-kilter guitar riff before bursting into the kind of powerful, life-affirming chorus about the defiant endurance of the working classes that only the Manics can do.
Initial single from the album “International Blue” is the glue that holds the album together. Detailing Wire’s joy at seeing Yves Klein’s paintings when on a break in Nice, it’s a stunning mix of the sweeping orchestration of Everything Must Go and the raw, untempered zeal of Generation Terrorists. It is as if the band are holding a mirror up to their own classic, “Motorcycle Emptiness” as the riff glides in the opposite direction and James Dean Bradfield reflects the same youthful passion for the guitar. In an alternate reality, you could reasonably expect to hear it all over the radio in the same way “Design For Life” dominated the airwaves in the 1990s.
The echoing guitar and simple drum machine beat of “Distant Colours” acts as the perfect pause for breath before the band soar to another rousing chorus – the music only just about able to keep up with Bradfield’s sheer enthusiasm. For a frontman with one of the most distinctively powerful voices of the past 30 odd years, it is staggering how powerful and energized his voice sounds throughout Resistance Is Futile. “Distant Colours” also one of the most overtly political songs on the album as Bradfield addresses the political fissures that have dominated the political landscape over the last two years as he laments the fragmented nature of the left and right.
“Vivian”, about American street photographer Vivian Maier, starts as a light ballad with piano and acoustic guitar before a crisp, ringing guitar riff guides the song to another nimble and melodic chorus. “Dylan and Caitlin” finds Wire taking a rare character-based approach to his writing as he details the fiery, tempestuous relationship between Dylan Thomas and his wife, Caitlin. Joined by prodigiously talented Welsh singer Catherine Anne Davies, aka the Anchoress, the country-tinged ballad works as the perfect companion piece to “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough” and “Little Baby Nothing”. Bradfield and Davies’ voices compliment each other beautifully as they capture the push and pull of an intense but mutually destructive relationship.
On “Liverpool Revisited”, Wire Eulogizes England’s famous city and finds inspiration in its history of working class struggle and the resilience and defiance of its people. “Hold Me Like a Heaven” is one of the most beautifully tender songs of the band’s career while, “In Eternity”, serves as a fitting tribute to the immortal legacy of David Bowie and aptly sounds like it could have been recorded in Berlin’s Hansa Studios. Album closer, “The Left Behind” is probably Wire’s best vocal turn to date. Sounding relaxed, Wire’s words tie a concluding knot around the album as he sings a paean to the importance of remembering the people who are no longer with us.
Every song on Resistance Is Futile has been polished to its maximum potency without blunting any of the edges. Musically, Bradfield is in fine form throughout as he adds thick layers of guitar and some of the most inspired riffs of his career. Thematically, while it is an often uplifting, celebratory sounding record, there is still a sense of reflective melancholy. As much as the songs celebrate the people that inspire them, there is an obvious doleful resignation at their heart that they have now been confined to history.
Unencumbered by a broad, overarching theme or a pronounced sonic narrative, the songs on Resistance Is Futile come across as standalone, individual vignettes with each one seemingly written as a potential single. In many respects, this is the band’s pop record, containing some of the most immediate and accessible songs of the band’s long career as they celebrate the cultural icons who have inspired them. It turns out that mIddle age suits them well.
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