Manic Street Preachers
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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
Columbia
3 September 2021

Things Falling Apart

What makes the realization problematic that language is or has become a ‘virus without reason’ and that it is becoming increasingly difficult to pin down meaning, The Ultra Vivid Lament suggests, is that this means that there is no longer a middle ground, a center that would enable people to communicate with each other by rooting them in the same meaningful whole. Indeed, a telling line in ‘Complicated Illusions’ confesses to the listener that the ‘I’ defends ‘the middle ground’.

This again constitutes a link with the works of Didion, this time with a text that opens with the following line: ‘The center was not holding’. This line, which made its way to the title of Griffin Dunne’s 2017 documentary about this American author, opens with the article ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem‘, in which Didion describes the counter-culture of the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury district. Piercing through its seemingly utopian and ideological appearance, not unlike how Ballard exposes the criminal underworld boiling beneath the surface of the dream-like reality shaped in Cocaine Nights, Didion describes the deeply disturbing and meaningless existence lived in that time by many who moved to San Francisco to explore drugs and supposedly liberating perspectives, culminating in a horrifying description of her encounter with a five-year-old child on acid.

Not unlike Bret Easton Ellis’ novels Less Than Zero (1985) and American Psycho (1991), which are both referenced in early Manic Street Preachers songs, Didion’s article circles feelings of Unheimlichkeit, pointing at the idea that something is very wrong without really being able to put one’s finger exactly on what is going on and why it is wrong. One explanation that Didion does provide revolves around the corrosion of language. Didion writes about the people she describes in her article: ‘Because they do not believe in words […] their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language. She therefore refers to these people as ‘an army of children waiting to be given the words’ (Didion 1968: 172).

This has resulted in what Didion characterizes as a social ‘vacuum’ and in ‘atomization’ (Didion 1968: 171), disconnecting individuals from each other since they are unable to rely on a shared knowledge or even a shared language. Again, this idea can be linked to the atomization constituted by social media algorithms, diagnosed in ‘Orwellian’.

Like the title of ‘Why I Write’, Didion took her reference to a center that does not hold from another text: a 1919 poem by W.B. Yeats (whose portrait was painted in 1907 by the above-mentioned Augustus John) entitled ‘The Second Coming‘ (the title of the collection in which Didion’s text is published was taken from this poem as well: ‘Slouching towards Bethlehem’). Written in-between the two World Wars and before the Irish War of Independence, this poem sketches the eerie feeling that the world is going to end. It employs apocalyptic and messianic imagery to describe the idea that, under the surface, the structures that should hold together our societies are corroding and are going to implode, inevitably resulting in war and bloodshed. As Yeats writes in the first half of the poem:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

(Yeats 1994: 158)

Together with the phrase ‘Things fall apart’, which found its way to the titles of Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel and the fourth album by the Roots, the observation that ‘the center will not hold’ expresses the idea that the world is inevitably going to meet its doom, no longer held together by a center or a common ground, corroded under the influence of processes that Didion characterizes as ‘atomizing’’ This apocalyptic and eerie feeling again returns on The Ultra Vivid Lament: ‘Orwellian’ contains the lines ‘I’ll walk you through the apocalypse / Where me and you could coexist’. Similar references return in the song ‘Afterending’, which contains an invitation to ‘Sail into the abyss with me / After ending and after belief / After tomorrow and after the flood’.

Apocalyptic Nothingness

As these lines indicate, these apocalyptic references are not purely critical, negative, or even political in nature. Instead, The Ultra Vivid Lament again entwines the political and the personal, expressing how the feeling that resistance seems to be futile and that there seems to be no possibility for escape or for constituting political change results in the personal desire to embrace an almost Schopenhauerian form of salvation, constituted by turning one’s back to the world. It is here that references to silence return again, contrasted with the corroded beliefs and deconstructed ideologies lamented in the album’s other songs.

‘Into the Waves of Love’, for example, opens with the following statements: ‘I don’t know what it is I believe in / But it involves misery and keeping still / Of a silence so intense and hard to find’. Containing the phrase ‘Progress is a comfortable disease’, taken from the 1944 poem ‘pity this busy monster – manunkind’ by the American poet e e cummings, this ‘silence’ is coupled to ‘nothingness’ in ‘Afterending’, which again suggests that the modern age has reduced us to onlookers of a disaster that we can only lament without having the ability to change the course of the world:

‘We enter a night of nothingness / Even your shadow disappears / Reality becomes an apology / And waking up the catastrophe’. The song ends with the claim that ‘The near future has been and gone’, again sketching a post-historical ‘perpetual now’ that resonates as well with the song’s title: ‘Afterending’. References to nothingness also return in ‘My Drowning World’, a bonus track on the Japanese edition of The Ultra Vivid Lament: ‘to live in the ruins of my own life / To surf on the waves of nothingness / […] / The glory of my dying world’.

In ‘Blank Diary Entry’, a duet between Bradfield and American singer Mark Lanegan, similar desires are expressed in descriptions of a ‘goodbye to glory’ and in references to ‘solitude’ and ‘emptiness’ that are reflected by a ‘blank diary entry’. Most explicitly, however, this embrace of loneliness and silence returns in ‘Happy Bored Alone’, in which we find defenses of a life of withdrawal, boredom, and even voyeurism to the apocalyptic unfolding of a collapsing center. The song describes being witness to ‘the smile of a dying hero’, ‘the tears of a love that’s leaving’ and praying to a ‘godless sky’, and eventually concludes that ‘Boredom was always my best friend’ and that it leads the ‘me’ to a higher plane.

Holograms

But The Ultra Vivid Lament goes even further: at places the album suggests that there is something beautiful in disconnecting oneself from the world and in watching the center implode. This suggestion is mainly shaped by the album’s music, described by Price as having a ‘glacial beauty’ and by Clarke as shaping a ‘consistent beautiful gloom from which little bursts of beauty constantly surface’. Talking about the musical aspect of the album, Wire himself refers as well to a ‘glacial kind of controlled energy that comes out in something melancholic, but uplifting’, and embeds the album in their discography by stating that it has the ‘high modernism’ of Futurology and the ‘underplayed, glacial power’ of Lifeblood

Given the richness of its lyrics, it is easy to overlook this musical aspect when interpreting The Ultra Vivid Lament, but it plays a crucial role in the meaning constituted by the album. This, I believe, is the other meaning of the phrase ‘resistance is futile’, the title of their previous album. Wire claims that the entryist aim behind the album was to make ‘seductive’ music that would leer in the listener and then ‘smuggle in’ a critical message with help of the lyrics. Indeed, the album’s music is hard to resist, resonating with listeners and pulling them in with help of catchy melodies. Primarily composed on piano, the album embraces a musical direction that, as many journalists noted, is strongly influenced by the poppy and slightly melancholic music of bands like ABBA, ELO, Talk Talk, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Lodger-era Bowie, The Associates, Roxy Music, Simple Minds and others (see Arundel 2021; Tom 2021; Murray 2021; Goggins 2021). 

This means that the album’s musical dimension at places even constitutes moments of bliss and optimism; resulting in a disconnect between words and music. Steven Poole in The Guardian was even fooled into thinking that ‘Orwellian’ celebrates the age diagnosed in the song, taking its almost carefree disco-tone and its ABBA-like piano chords as endorsing the practices described in its apocalyptic lyrics, such as the burning of books and the corrosion of meaning. Whereas the lyrics of many songs on the album sketch a world in which truth hides in margins, in which language is a virus that controls the self, in which digimodernism is infecting all aspects of existence, and in which this self can therefore do nothing but lament this situation and try to withdraw into silence and nothingness, the music pulls the listener back in, touching them on an affective and emotional level. Most explicitly, such a disconnect between music and words returns in the almost cynical meaning that ‘Afterending’ gains when the line ‘The near feature has been and gone’ is followed by a joyful and carefree singing of ‘lalala’. 

The release of The Ultra VIVID Lament, in September 2021, coincided with ABBA announcing a tour during which holograms of their younger selves would perform. Perhaps this is how the music on this Manic Street Preachers album, permeated with the influence of the Swedish group, also comes to reflect some of the above-mentioned themes: the idea that reality has turned into a shiny surface, into a virtual digitized ‘perpetual now’ in which past, present and future entwine, may not find a better representation than an audience watching holograms representing people from the past performing music from this same past. Indeed, Wire described the music on the album as ‘organic futurism’, introducing a certain timelessness that would make the listener ‘not quite sure what era’ they are listening to. Somewhere else, he defines it as a ‘futuristic fantasy album’ that reflects ‘the classic ‘70s idea of the future that never really arrived’.

Mourning and Melancholia

The nostalgic traces of ABBA’s hologram tour bring me to the last aspect of The Ultra Vivid Lament that I want to discuss. It would be wrong to conclude that the album only presents us either with expressions of alienation and confusion or with images of glacial beauty, painting vistas of a world from which the center is falling apart, presented as a spectacle, a hologram, that is both eerie and beautiful. Instead, the album also contains highly personal moments, mainly of lament: the album was written in a period in which Wire lost both of his parents to cancer, which embeds it in his personal mourning process. In The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), in which she reflects on the death of her husband, Didion writes the following about this process: 

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.

(Didion 2006: 220)

Didion’s observation, quoted on the sleeve of The Ultra Vivid Lament, that she writes to find out the state she is in, clearly returns to her detailed descriptions of personal feelings of grief and mourning in The Year of Magical Thinking. A similar motivation echoes through the tender and melancholic song ‘Diapause’ on The Ultra Vivid Lament, the title of which reflects the experience of being in a state of grief. The song’s lyrics describe a self thrown into a timeless and spaceless void, desperately trying to connect but losing control over what happens: ‘I stood still for a moment paralysed / The sky seemed so high as the world passed me by / I can’t find a solution as decades unfold / So callous as my standstill takes hold’.

References to the deaths of Wire’s parents, the experience of which he described in an interview as ‘a gaping hole of sadness that overtook my life’, can also be found in the above-mentioned ‘My Drowning World’, which is sung by Wire himself and refers to his mother as ‘a long-distance ghost’. The drowning mentioned in its title resonates with another observation made by Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking: ‘I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table. Let them become the name on the trust accounts. Let go of them in the water.’ Didion concludes this passage with the observation that ‘knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water’ (2006: 263-64), a feeling that returns in the lyrics of ‘Diapause’ and that is expressed through its melancholic music. 

Why this more personal lament shaped on the album is also ultra vivid in nature might be explained with help of Didion as well. In Blue Nights (2011), which she wrote after her daughter died, Didion observes the following: ‘this book is called “Blue Nights” because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning’ (Didion 2011: 12).

In a similar vein, The Ultra Vivid Lament describes experiences of loss, despair, grief, and mourning in moments of brightness: the mourning self shaped in these lyrics is vividly aware of what has happened, reflects on it, describes their failure of making sense of it, nevertheless unable to control it. This time, words seem to fail for a different reason: as Didion notes throughout her books on mourning, language is often powerless in the face of experiences of grief and mourning.

This more personal dimension also returns in a different manner on The Ultra Vivid Lament: in songs that mourn a past that has disappeared. The album opens with ‘Still Snowing in Sapporo’, which describes a visit of the band to Japan in 1993. In this time Manic Street Preachers were still a foursome: in 1994, their lyricist and guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared, never to be seen or found again. The song describes how the lyrical ‘I’ sees their own memories ‘through a video camera filter’. Lamenting the past, the lyrics describe memories of the band’s early years, resonating with the images shown in Kieran Evans’ documentary of their 1993 Japanese tour (through a video camera filter), as well as with the images used for the video clip of their 1992 single ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’, also shot in Japan: ‘Through clouds and fog we glimpsed the neon lights / With make up running eyes turned towards the sky’. 

The lamenting and melancholic nature of the song return in the lines ‘How could 4 become so strong / Yet break and leave too soon’, describing a past freeze-framed in the memories of the lyrical ‘I’, turned, as Didion notes in the passage cited above, into a photograph. This melancholic tendency has always played an important role in the lyrics of the band: references to a lost childhood innocence can be found on their earliest albums, but after the disappearance of Edwards they started looking back more and more on the past they had by then developed themselves, often combining nostalgic musings revolving around the trauma of Edwards’s disappearance with references to crumbling ideologies. This same combination returns in the lyrics of ‘Still Snowing in Sapporo’: ‘Those days may never come again / My optimism resembles a dying flame’. 

Warmth and Connection

These references to the past re-introduce a form of warmth to the otherwise ‘glacial’ atmosphere of the album, countering the emptiness, silence, and post-political reality sketched and embraced on and by The Ultra Vivid Lament. This past, after all, re-centers this otherwise decentered reality by emphasizing the band’s history and perseverance: one of the reasons why this album resonates with longtime fans of Manic Street Preachers is that it reminds listeners of the 35 years of their existence, not only because of the recognizable political and intellectual dimensions of their lyrics, some of which I discussed above but also because of more implicit links.

The musical structure and sound of the song ‘Still Snowing in Sapporo’, for example, reminds of the melancholic 1996 B-side ‘Dead Trees and Traffic Islands’ (on the single of ‘A Design for Life’, the title of which might be a reference to Ballard’s novel Concrete Island). The above-mentioned quote by e e cummings, furthermore, was already printed in the sleeve of Generation Terrorists, and in the same booklet we find the Sylvia Plath quote ‘I pray to god but the sky is empty’, which echoes through the above-mentioned line ‘praying to a godless sky’ (see also Price 2021). 

The album closer ‘Afterending’, in turn, contains spectral echoes of ‘Cardiff Afterlife’, the song that closes Lifeblood. Both songs overlap in the sense that they sketch a melancholic beyond, the first possibly referring to Richey Edwards, emphasized by its employment of harp and percussion crescendos that remind of Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) (one of the many films celebrated by the band in their early years), the second referring to the post-political afterlife discussed above.

The duet on ‘The Secret He Had Missed’, as Price notes furthermore, reminds of the Manic Street Preachers song – and duet – ‘Dylan and Caitlyn’ (on Resistance is Futile), about Dylan and Caitlyn Thomas (both painted by Augustus John). It also reminds of ‘Tsunami’ (on This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours), another song about Welsh siblings. This time the twin sisters Jennifer and June Gibbons, of whom one also overshadowed the other, the phrase ‘tsunami’ referring to the tragic sense of sad liberation that overcame June when her sister Jennifer died. In this way, the album celebrates the 35 years during which the band have built up connections with their fans, becoming a part of the identity of the latter, not only influencing their ideas and reflections with help of lyrics but also forming the soundtrack of important moments in their lives. 

A re-centering also takes place through the more personal dimensions of the album’s lament: the tender and emotional references to forms of mourning emphasize the importance of human connection, of interpersonal warmth, of loving relationships in which one feels home. ‘My Drowning World’ constitutes this personal history by emphasizing the ways in which the words we use are haunted by our parents: ‘My father’s anger still raging / All around my million words / None of which I wrote, all of which I learned / Hymns of my youth still call me’. In ‘Complicated Illusions’, this idea returns in the line ‘And in the rhythm of your voice / I find space to rejoice’.

In this way, these lyrics turn away from Saussure’s focus on the underlying structures of language, or from Burroughs and Derrida’s idea that language is a virus. Instead, they embrace the meaningful and personal nature of communication; the warmth that forms part of loving relationships, which the band seem to be comfortable cherishing in their lyrics now that they are in their 50s and have turned away from the radicalism – sometimes political, sometimes nihilistic – of their early albums.

A Political Purpose

Orwell concludes ‘Why I Write’ with the following observation: ‘looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally’ (2003: 10). The same holds true for Manic Street Preachers releases. The Welsh band’s best albums are driven by a political idea that unites their lyrics, music, album art and production, channeling these dimensions into an artwork that exuberates meaning on different levels, centering around Orwell’s political aim ‘to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after’.

Whether this concerns an employment of Situationist tactics on Generation Terrorists, bleak explorations of the dark sides of human civilization on The Holy Bible, or an embrace of Europeanism through various international art movements on Futurology, each of these albums revolves around a specific political aim – which I characterized in my book, Popular Music, Critique and Manic Street Preachers, about the band as a ‘critical model’ – that holds it together and ‘imposes’ itself, to use Didion’s words again, ‘on other people’. 

At the same time, as mentioned above, these albums also contain that which Orwell describes as the world-view he acquired in childhood: in different ways, these albums are embraced by listeners because they resonate with them, connect to them, have become a part of their lives, and in that way constitute meaningful and warm connections that lie beyond the purely political. 

Completing the circle, The Ultra Vivid Lament shows that it is eventually this same personal warmth and this emphasis on connection that infuses the political realm with hope: the album contains one song that is explicitly political and optimistic in nature, defending social togetherness as an antidote to the atomization processes described by the other songs on the album. This song is called ‘Don’t Let the Night Divide Us’ and urges the listener to not let ‘their hatred blind us’, the ‘they’ referring to ‘The boys from Eton’ who we should not allow to ‘suggest that we are beaten’.

Including this optimistic but also combative song on the album, the band contrast the above-mentioned moments of withdrawal and of a longing for apocalyptic nothingness with an emphasis on the political need to change the societies in which we live: ‘A land now so infected / Can be freed and equal’. It is in this way that, eventually, the personal and the political again come together on The Ultra Vivid Lament, making the album’s lament less hopeless than it initially seems to be. Even in today’s world, resistance might therefore not be entirely futile – at least not as long as critical popular music provides us with moments of reflection, connection, warmth, and critique.


Works Cited

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Tom, ‘“I wanted to treat it like The Clash playing Abba…” – James Dean Bradfield opens up about the Manic Street Preachers’ new album The Ultra Vivid Lament’. HMV. 9 September 2021.

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