The Ultra Vivid Lament starts in the past. “Snowing in Sapporo” sees Manic Street Preachers lyricist Nicky Wire (through the voice of frontman James Dean Bradfield) recalling a walk through snow-leaden Sapporo in 1993. Combining ethereal synths and Bradfield’s echoing vocals, it makes for a wonderfully dreamlike and deeply melancholic opening. The track encapsulates The Ultra Vivid Lament’s broader emotional tenor, which shares something with the confused, rich and jumbled headspace of a dream.
To fully understand any new release by the Manic Street Preachers requires a somewhat holistic approach. Although Nicky Wire has claimed that the band make “either post-punk or glam albums”, their back catalogue is constantly shifting, flicking between moods and lurching back and forth through the band’s own history, making connections to older approaches, philosophies and emotions. On The Ultra Vivid Lament, there are echoes of the cool modernism of 2014’s brilliant Futurology, a little of the lush melancholy of 1998’s This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, and plenty of the icy new wave pop of 2004’s Lifeblood.
In retrospect, Lifeblood – the Manics’ first post-9/11 album, felt like the band were crafting an album that was as cold and jaded as the world of that era. It’s easy to read The Ultra Vivid Lament similarly. The album is littered with references to the confusion and complexity of our current sociopolitical landscape, explicitly evidenced by “Don’t Let The Night Divide Us” and lead single “Orwellian”. Whereas the Manics’ most politically conscious tracks were once pointed, scathing anthems, the two here are bouncy, piano-lead, and oddly friendly. They’re a touch toothless – which this is perhaps appropriate for an album that reveals itself to possess a deeply conflicted soul.
Instead, the best tracks on The Ultra Vivid Lament are the ones that make use of the sublime melancholy that the Manics channel so fluently. While there’s nothing to match the tear-stained confessions of This Is My Truth’s “The Everlasting” or the gorgeous splendor of Lifeblood’s underrated “Cardiff Afterlife”, The Ultra Vivid Lament still contains moments of deep emotional resonance. “Snowing in Sapporo” is an evocative delight. The resplendent “Quest For Ancient Colour” contains piercing and often sad lyrics (“I used to make sense/but now I am confused”). Meanwhile, the strange, echo-filled “Diapause” reckons with heartbreak and loss, concluding: “I’ve burned so many bridges but not the one that leads to you.”
Wire’s lyrics are as stellar as ever. His work has been consistently brilliant since he assumed the chief lyricist mantle following the disappearance of Richey Edwards in 1995. He’s long-cemented himself as a fully-formed and recognizable voice capable of iconic, witty, and devastating turns of phrase. He approaches the album’s themes of confusion and despondency with the same poetic and intellectual vigor as he does his usual thematic preoccupations of boredom (“Happy Bored Alone”), self-criticism (“Into the Waves of Love”), and biographical portraits (“The Secret He Had Missed”).
What has varied more throughout the Manics’ career, however, is their aesthetic vision and songwriting. They’ve rarely made an uninspired or unambitious creative decision, but specific shifts and experiments have worked better than others. On The Ultra Vivid Lament they smash together a melange of artful 1970s and 1980s pop influences – everything from ABBA to Echo & the Bunnymen to Elton John can be discerned in the omnipresent pianos, driving tempos, and layered vocals. This isn’t the most inspired choice the Manics’ have ever made but, again, it fits in with the overarching tone of uncertainty. When faced with confusion and doubt, is there a more inviting refuge than that of the familiar past?
The album closes with “Afterending”, a sanguine track that finds the band in a resigned but content headspace. The surreal lyrics, including the chorus’ “Sail into the abyss with me / After ending and after belief” line can be read as either the Manics accepting the new reality they have found themselves in or them surrendering to their nostalgia-infused dreamscape, content to forever dwell in the 1993 Sapporo snow. Like so much in our strange new world, both possibilities might be true.