Considering they’re into a career spanning well over 30 years, to see Welsh rockers Manic Street Preachers churn out a 14th album just three years after 2018’s Resistance Is Futile is an indication of a band that has no intention of quitting anytime soon. And despite several mis-steps along the way since their 1992 debut Generation Terrorists, album 13 was surprisingly one of their best, an album crafted from piano roots rather than the usual guitar based origins.
Ultra Vivid Lament was created from more familiar beginnings but, unlike its predecessor, it lacks consistency despite helping hands provided by Mark Lanegan and Julia Cummings (Sunflower Bean) on a couple of tracks. At times it rocks, at other moments it dives and leaves you wondering how the same guys can afford to detour so much after the relative success of Resistance Is Futile’s differing approach.
Opener Still Snowing In Sapporo gives us one of the biggest highlights right from the word go; after a brief introduction that sounds like a heralded arrival by a prophet, a standard Manics cut takes shape like something from 1996’s Everything Must Go (think Kevin Carter or Australia) with racing guitars. It’s a decent if hardly groundbreaking melody which becomes ever so slightly cheesy and struggles a little for direction when played out on keys later during the track.
Single Orwellian Times is another early plus as James Dean Bradfield tells of “walking through the apocalypse” but the excellent chorus is its heartbeat, a trait also offered by Complicated Illusions, this time the cut sounding unlike stereotypical Manics with its slowed down pace. Closer Afterending ensures the collection finishes well enough, and like some of the earlier tracks it’s one of the few you would be quite happy to stick straight back on again, or for that matter, anytime again within the next millennium, which cannot be said for much of what sits in the middle.
The Secret He Has Missed, a duet featuring Cummings, is perhaps one that fares slightly better, but it lacks a killer chorus that the jewel in their ‘duet crown’ boasts: Your Love Alone Is Not Enough with Nina Persson of The Cardigans from Send Away The Tigers (2007) blows this out of the water, nay, solar system. Unfortunately, despite a great bridge, the song falls short although the vocals dovetail gorgeously, and there’s no hiding from the well-worn descending chorus, a trait that has been utilised a billion times before (hell, Coldplay employ it more than once on two massive hits without many noticing – see Speed Of Sound and Clocks as classic examples of getting away with the classic ‘dress a descending riff up differently and maybe no one will notice’).
Unfortunately, elsewhere there’s little to love. Lanegan’s presence on Blank Diary Entry means little because the song should probably be renamed as Bland Diary Entry such is its mediocrity, whilst Quest For Ancient Colour marks the beginning of the descent in full earnest with more boredom afoot. Into The Waves Of Love washes over you like a malfunctioning shower that only kicks out air instead of water and Diapause completely loses its way when a noodly guitar solo precedes a section that sounds like the dullest lift music playing in the service lifts at Boots rather than ones occupied by actual paying customers nearer the front of the store.
So despite its occasional uplifting moments, the overall feeling you get from Ultra Vivid Lament is indeed a lament for something better, something briefly promised by Resistance Is Futile despite its title sounding more Borg-like than Star Trek character Seven Of Nine. With an autumn tour planned, if we are still managing to fend off further lockdowns, there is little to look forward to in the way of seeing these tracks hitting the road for the first time, and it’s more likely that people will be more fascinated with the latest crazily flamboyant décor adorning Nicky Wire’s microphone stand than the majority of new songs from this largely underwhelming 14th studio album.