I said a few days ago how the press release for the David Christian and The Pinecone Orchestra album reminded me of the letters that Richey Edwards used to write. I said those were letters to carry close to the heart and how they were better than any of the records that the Manics might have been making at the time. A little unfair that, perhaps, as the only record released at that particular point in history was the rabid Clash of ‘Suicide Alley’/’Tennessee’, and whilst its incendiary noise may have struck a chord it could not compete with the breathless rush of Richey’s passionate eloquence. Heady days.
It is true too that I have not had an enormous amount of interest in the music of the Manic Street Preachers since they/we lost Richey, but that feels more like a reflection of the way life goes than anything else. Over those decades if the Manics have drifted across my consciousness then it has always rather felt like seeing an old school friend in the street on the occasions you might return to your home town. A nod from the opposite end of the market square, each of you on different errands. A smile maybe, but nothing much to say. I’m really pleased for their success though. They deserve it. They’ve worked hard. Good on them, and rather the Manics than some band of sour-faced self-absorbed egoist right-wing vaccine-denying ‘rebels’ after all. With ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ though I admit that I’d like to take the time to divert from my trip in those old town streets and rest awhile for a natter over a beer, for it is the first Manic Street Preachers album in a long time that I’ve wanted to listen to repeatedly.
Oddly enough, after Saint Etienne’s time-travel excursion to the ’90s on ‘I’ve Been Trying To Tell You’, their former Heavenly labelmates revisit 1993 on album opener ‘It’s Still Snowing in Sapporo’. It’s a tremendous opener, full of light and brimming with the confidence and flaws the youthful group must have felt at the time. Naturally too there is a sadness running beneath the euphoria, with Wire’s lyrics neatly treading the treacherous path between subtle suggestion and the wearily obvious. That he manages to paint an image that is simultaneously universal and heartbreakingly personal is testament to his assured development as a writer. Put together with Bradfield’s music, which here finds a sublime balance between power and lightness previously missing (for me, at least) and you have a song that I swear down on some days, like today, can have me in bits.
Elsewhere on the album it seems like a lot has been made of musical reference to ABBA, and there is a lot of sense to this as many of the songs feel much more naturally melodic and effortless than I’ve previously heard in my admittedly cursory listens to Manic’s albums. Where in the past I know I have inwardly cringed at what I’ve heard as clumsy, lumpen Rock music, here things sound transported on waves of deft and playful delight. ‘Into The Waves Of Love’, for example, twinkles with weightless piano before reaching for the heavens in a gentle cacophony of soul backing vocals and the ghost of a squeezebox playing in the corner caff, whilst ‘Afterending’ is a gorgeous piece of orchestrated Pop masquerading as existential crisis. Or vice versa. Both these songs too feel like tremendous examples of Wire’s maturity as a writer as he navigates the waters of middle age, making sense of residual youthful idealism in a world where everything is validated and therefore stripped of meaning.
It’s the two songs where Bradfield duets with Mark Lanegan and Julia Cumming that really do it for me, however. ‘Blank Diary Entry’ sees Lanegan doing his finest Cash gruff grumble, setting Bradfield off perfectly, allowing his vocal to sound smoother and less stretched than it often does on Manics’ records (and which, I will admit, has often grated with me). Musically too there is something of a Cash Country rumble going on in the mix, as the song inhabits a landscape that is equal parts Giant Sand, Black Crowes and Dirty Three.
‘The Secret He Had Missed’, meanwhile, is ostensibly about the lives of Augustus and Gwen John, the Welsh brother and sister whose approaches to painting and life in the early 20th Century seemed so disparate and yet inextricably connected through both genetics and the lens of history. It is a big idea to address in a three and a half minute Pop song, yet it is carried off with a great deal of confidence. Bradfield takes the part of Augustus, reflecting on how a bohemian career of bravura where he both set and followed the fashions of artistic revolutions may have brought instant fame and fortune, but ultimately too led to a long term diminution of perceived value. Cumming (whose part is played by Aimee Ffion Edwards in the gorgeous video) meanwhile serves as the imaginary voice of Gwen, retreating to solitude and plagued by self-doubt to create works of minimalist grandeur that have resonated so much more strongly as the 20th Century has twisted into the 21st.
As a song it is a tremendous spotlight on two great artists and of course if those lines about “the girl in the long blue dress” encourage people to explore the paintings and the lives in more detail then so much the better. Again though, lyrically the song shows Wire’s maturity as he uses the historical narrative as a metaphor for something personal in the development of our lives. That necessary duality, the eternal conflict of our inner and outer voices. It’s why that guitar solo sounds so hilariously ludicrous and yet so perfectly apt. Life is never that easy.
The closing lines where the song moves more obviously into the realm of metaphor are particularly lovely, as those oppositions are inexorably drawn together in nature’s cauldron:
“Walls defeated by the sea
Still resonate an imperfect dream
The whispering waves still cleanse and clean
They can’t wipe away what you’ve seen”
The lines too bring us back to that point in ‘Sapporo’ in which time wraps back on itself and shows us our impermanence in the face of it all. Salty tears of nostalgia bringing sorrow and solace.
Now what about that beer…
If we leap into our time machine again and dash back to the mid nineteen eighties, then I’m sure we would find Richey and perhaps other future members of the Manic Street Preachers obsessing over the records of Alan Brown and bIG*fLAME. With their fractious PostPunkPop crackling with discordant death disco exuberance and spiked with astute socio-political observation, bIG*fLAME may have made only a handful of records, but their influence has surely fed into generations of disaffected Pop where clanging guitars are held high and proud.
Those fractured guitars may have somewhat surrendered to the disco groove in Brown’s post-*fLAME materialisation as The Great Leap Forward, but that was never a cause for concern as the songs of ’87-’88 immediately positioned Brown in that marvellous camp where the likes of Laugh were similarly morphing their clang-clang-clang with contemporary urban dance sounds to create something fresh and exciting. Sad then to hear of Laugh/Intastella’s Martin Wright’s recent passing, so perhaps celebrate with listening again to ‘Sensation Number One’ or ‘Paul McCartney’.
Celebrate too perhaps with a listen to The Great Leap Forward’s superb ‘Revolt Against An Age Of Plenty’ LP, a record that welcomes Brown back some nine years after the last Great Leap Forward set graced our Unpopular advent series. In that particular entry I suggested that “if there has been a more acutely observed and danceable deconstruction of current times in any medium than this set of songs then I have yet to come across it”, and really those sentiments can be transposed across the span of time. Filled with infectious tunes that showcase Brown’s incisive social and political commentary, this time out the record also reflects a simultaneously broader and yet more personal meditation on the world. That’s particularly noticeable on the excellent ‘Can You Kanreki’ in which Brown celebrates the Japanese concept of second childhood and re-birth for those hitting 60. “We’ve come full circle” he sings, whilst elsewhere on the record he acknowledges that circularity with a tremendous reimagining of bIG*fLAME classic ‘dEBRA’ that, if it knocks some of the original’s wildly angular edges into a smoother finish, nevertheless retains enough stop-start sun-burnt energy to be an exquisite bruise of nostalgic bittersweet treasure.
As in 2012 though, it is the title cut from ‘Revolt Against An Age Of Plenty’ that I’m slotting onto my 2021 advent mix(tape). Distilling into two and half minutes much of my own feelings about Modern Life as a middle aged existentialist perpetually pestered by the itch of social-consciousness and the ghosts of youthful idealism, it is a song that calls to arms even whilst implicitly understanding its own impotence as an agent for change. Or maybe that’s just me…