Manic Street Preachers
Photo: Alex Lake / Courtesy of the artist

Orwellian Times: On Manic Street Preachers’ ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’

Manic Street Preachers’ The Ultra Vivid Lament is driven by George Orwell’s aim to make political writing into art.

The Ultra Vivid Lament
Manic Street Preachers
3 September 2021

In his 1946 essay ‘Why I Write’, George Orwell reflects on the different aims and goals of literary authors. He postulates that, besides the need to make a living, there are four general motives for writing. The first three concern ‘sheer egoism’, ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’, and ‘historical impulse’, the latter of which he defines as the ‘desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity’ (Orwell 2003: 5). It is on the fourth motive, which he describes as follows, that Orwell focuses primarily in the essay:

Political purpose – using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

(Orwell 2003: 5)

These four motives, Orwell goes on, ‘war against one another’ and are different in each person and in each historical age (2003: 5). Within himself, he observes, the fourth motive gained a hegemonic position, mainly because of his personal experiences and the historical conditions that shaped him. He refers, for example, to his ‘hatred of authority’ that was the result of his experiences with colonial imperialism as an employee of the Indian Police Force in Burma (now Myanmar). He also describes how he lived in poverty, which made him more and more aware of the existence of the working classes, and furthermore mentions his involvement in the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Hitler as historical factors that made him into a political author (Orwell 2003: 5-7). 

This has not, Orwell claims about his own writings, resulted in works that merely consist of political sloganeering: his political ideals have always been entwined with his aesthetic sensibilities, he states. It is precisely because of these sensibilities that his political texts came to resonate with their readers. As he writes in a long passage that I want to quote in full:

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself.

(Orwell 2003: 8)

With the last lines, Orwell refers to feelings of curiosity and wonder, a sense of playfulness, and experiences of beauty that would be excluded from perspectives that are only political in nature.

 Orwell reflects in ‘Why I Write’ on the art of writing and embeds his observations in diagnoses of events in a particular age, mainly the rise of imperialist politics and several forms of totalitarianism in the first half of the 20th century. However, in this essay, I employ his ideas in a different aesthetic, cultural and historical context: that of contemporary popular music. More specifically, I focus on The Ultra Vivid Lament, the 14th album of Manic Street Preachers, which was released on 20 September 2021 and debuted at nr. 1 in the UK Albums Chart. 

The Manics’ Networks of References

The link between Orwell and Manic Street Preachers, consisting of singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield, bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire, and drummer Sean Moore, is not difficult to establish. This band have, as Bradfield observes in a recent interview about their latest album, always worn their intellectual and political hearts on their sleeves. Indeed, one of their many appeals is formed by the countless references to authors, politicians, philosophers, poets, and playwrights, as well as books, paintings, films, manifestos, and other artworks that can be found in their song lyrics and sleeve designs, or that are scattered throughout interviews or video-clips.

These references range from David Bowie (‘In Eternity’ on 2018’s Resistance Is Futile), Ray Johnson’s mail art (‘Locust Valley’, a B-side on the 2001 single of ‘Found That Soul’) and Willem de Kooning’s painting ‘Door to the River’ (‘Door to the River’ on 2002’s Greatest Hits album Forever Delayed), to Susan Sontag (quoted on the sleeve of 2002’s Know Your Enemy), Emily Pankhurst (‘Emily’ on 2003’s Lifeblood) and Jan Morris (‘Running Out of Fantasy’ on 2013’s Rewind the Film). Constituting these links, the band have always embedded themselves in a rhizomatic network of implicit and explicit references, sometimes discovered decades after a release came out. 

An example found on The Ultra Vivid Lament is formed by the third song on the album: ‘The Secret He Had Missed’ released as its second single on 16 July 2021. The lyrics of this song, which form a duet between Bradfield and Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming, revolve around the lives of Gwen and Augustus John, a sister and brother born in the Welsh town of Tenby, who both became painters but lived opposite lives. Whereas Augustus embraced a bohemian existence of flamboyance and decadence, which included sexual violence, his sister was shy and quiet, eventually turning to catholicism and living most of her life in France.

The lyrics of the song present the contrasting perspectives of both painters, emphasized by the different voices of Bradfield and Cumming, and eventually gravitate toward reflections on the failure of Augustus to become as original and authentic as his sister. The lyrics include the statement made by Augustus himself, for example, that ’50 years from now, I shall be known as the brother of Gwen John’ (qtd. in BBC 1975). The title of the song was taken from a 1975 BBC documentary on the painters called Augustus and Gwen: The Fire and the Fountain. Reflecting on the failure of Augustus to make a mark on painting and to develop his talent to the fullest, the narrator of the documentary observes: 

[Augustus] could not control his wayward talent or resolve the conflict within him. The fire of his inspiration burned out and he was left angry and unfulfilled. And he would sit and stare at his sister’s paintings, as if to discover there the secret he had missed.

(BBC 1975)

This phrase returns in the lyrics of the song in the following lines: ‘The secret he had missed was lying at his fingertips / The girl in the long blue dress / Cast a spell and left us blessed’. As Simon Price notes in his review for The Quietus, the second line might refer to a painting by Gwen John called ‘The Convalescent’, also the title of a Manic Street Preachers song (on their album Know Your Enemy). It could also refer to her painting ‘Girl in a Blue Dress‘.

Another example of the many references included in Manic Street Preachers releases, and this brings me back to the issues discussed in the opening of this essay, concerns George Orwell: the sleeve of the band’s 1994 single ‘Revol’ contains a quote from Animal Farm, about which Orwell himself observes in ‘Why I Write’ that it was the first book in which he tried, ‘with full consciousness of what [he] was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole’ (2003: 9). The English author is also mentioned in the band’s song ‘1985’ (on Lifeblood), which claims that ‘in 1985 Orwell was proved right’, referring to Thatcher’s victory over the British Miners’ Strikes, powerfully depicted in Owen Gower’s 2014 documentary Still the Enemy Within.

Furthermore, references to 1984’s Big Brother, O’Brien and the ‘Newspeak’ dictionary turn up in the lyrics of ‘P.C.P.’ (on The Holy Bible) and ‘Peeled Apples’ (on Journal for Plague Lovers). A sample from Michael Radford’s film version of 1984 – in which we hear Winston Smith (played by John Hurt) state that within the totalitarian state of Oceania he wants ‘everyone corrupt’ – opens the song ‘Faster’ (on The Holy Bible). More implicitly, ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’, which partly concerns the Spanish Civil War, contains echoes of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

Orwell also pops up on The Ultra Vivid Lament. Most explicitly, this happens in the album’s second song, ‘Orwellian’, to which I return below. Another reference to Orwell is constituted rather implicitly: the album, as almost all releases by the band, is accompanied by a quote printed in its sleeve booklet. The quote used for The Ultra Vivid Lament goes as follows:

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.

Manic Street Preachers, The Ultra Vivid Lament

This quote is taken from the essay ‘Why I Write’ by American author Joan Didion (see Didion 2012: 101), which opens with the claim that she ‘stole’ the essay’s title from Orwell. One reason for doing this, she observes, is that the phrase sounds like ‘I – I – I’, which emphasizes her claim that ‘in many ways, writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind’ (Didion 2012: 101-102).

In the case of The Ultra Vivid Lament, the aim to make people listen can be understood literally: it is through music that the band aim to speak to their listeners, writing songs that are beautiful, catchy, and melancholic, and that include lyrics in which the ideas of Orwell and Didion, formulated in essays with the same title, come together. The album, this means, is driven by two aims, born in Orwell’s motive to ‘make political writing into art’ and in Didion’s desire to write in order to understand herself and her experiences. The personal and the political, in other words, are entwined on the album, and both dimensions revolve in different ways around the ‘ultra vivid lament’ of the album’s title.