“The lines are joined by finding one another.” Aleksander Rodchenko
“This record is the quintessence of the people we are when we’re with each other. How we react to each other. What we talk about. What we argue about. How we agree. Futurology is the people we are.” James Dean Bradfield
“I get more inspiration from looking at art than I do from listening to music. But no matter how deluded, I still have the vision that when we write a song we’re creating four minutes of art. It might be getting harder to prove it but this is what we’re still trying to communicate. Communication is our artform.” Nicky Wire
Manic Street Preachers are the last truly great mainstream British rock group… but even a partisan fan could be forgiven for wondering occasionally about how much longer they can carry on at their momentous pace of creativity and relevancy. After all, they formed in South Wales in 1986, released their first single ‘Suicide Alley’ in 1988, debut album ‘Generation Terrorists’ in 1992 and had reached their commercial peak by 1998’s ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’.
They have had, as Nicky Wire puts it succinctly, “a good innings”, acknowledging that most bands are lucky to be still functioning outside of the nostalgia circuit at their age and few, if any at all, remain a force to be reckoned with. However, just one listen to the trio’s 12th album ‘Futurology’ will remind the rock fan of many facts – the primary of which being: Manic Street Preachers are not like any other bands. Not by a long chalk.
It would be wrong to claim that ‘Futurology’ is a “return to form” (let’s leave that to the bands who haven’t produced a good album in years, shall we?) but it does represent a resurgent cresting of their powers and, in many senses, a complete artistic rebirth. It is, in simple terms, one of the best albums they have ever recorded. It presents them still travelling on an upward trajectory, and even by their own standards, they have been on a roll over the last few years. ‘Send Away The Tigers’ (2007) saw them reconnect with the anthemic glam rock of their early years and ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ (2009) featured the band taking care of unfinished business by setting old lyrics of former band mate and friend Richey Edwards to blistering punk rock. With ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ (2010) – their last shot at mass communication – they successfully revived their stadium rock sound and then with ‘Rewind The Film’ (2013) they broke new personal ground with an all but unplugged collection of introspective ‘folk’ songs.
During the sessions for that album, it became clear that they were writing two completely different sets of tracks however. While ‘Rewind The Film’ was their attempt to “do a Nebraska”, the songs they saved over to make up ‘Futurology’ were inspired by travelling through Europe, the pioneering artistic spirit of early 20th Century modernist art and the maverick music of Krautrock and New Pop. Nicky says: “During our last European tour we really reconnected with this idea of travelling on the German Autobahns listening to Kraftwerk, Neu!, Popul Vuh and Cabaret Voltaire. The idea of being on these endless futuristic roads but being surrounded by these ancient forests at the same time. It’s a magical feeling and it makes you think of soundtracks in your head as you’re travelling through this landscape.” ‘Futurology’ is indeed a record which maps out physical, spiritual, artistic, temporal, philosophical and metaphorical journeys, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that it is also capable of transporting the listener from despair to somewhere hopeful and euphoric. But to reach the destination you have to take the entire journey along with the band…
‘Between The Clock And The Bed’ is a case of it being darkest just before the dawn, referring, as it does, to an unsettling self-portrait by the king of Norwegian expressionism Edvard Munch shortly before his death. He is pictured standing in all of his infirmity by a grandfather clock with no hands (symbolising death) and a bed (symbolising illness). One of his own paintings of a nude hangs behind him in the shadows (symbolising the disappearance of youthful vitality). And then there is the door to a jet black hallway standing ominously ajar (symbolising… well, you get the picture…)
Nicky says: “It’s a very unsettling portrait of a man grappling with the idea of imminent death. And this song is about that petrifying transition. When you’re hitting 45 like we are, everything becomes… more vivid, shall we say. Everything that you’re losing and everything that’s fucking coming becomes clear. The lyrics come from a massive place of doubt: the tangible idea that something could be taken away from you very easily. You’re blind to it for most of your life but then suddenly you are aware that you could lose everything. You just feel, ‘Oh fuck… it could all go.'”
But the Manics of 2014 aren’t interested in punching you square in face unless the fist is inside a luxuriously soft velvet glove first. The baleful lyrics are tempered and rendered bittersweet by the fact they are delivered by James Dean Bradfield – one of the finest Welsh rock voices of his generation – performing an astounding duet with Green Gartside – one of the finest Welsh pop voices of his. Gartside, as the key member of Scritti Politti, is a touchstone on the album. ‘Futurology’ does look reverentially back to the secret history of mid-1980s new pop and post-post-punk that informed the margins of the mainstream; but it does so in order to look forwards. James is quick to reel off the countless unsung tracks from this period that still influence him musically to this day. Public Image Limited ‘This Is Not A Love Song’. Simple Minds (“my true gods”) ‘Theme For Great Cities’. Colourbox ‘The Moon Is Blue’, Bauhaus ‘Dark Entry’ and the instrumentals off ‘Low’.
The album takes the listener all the way from existential crisis to spiritual redemption and the monolithic shadow of early 20th Century modernist art falls across the entire journey. Nowhere is this influence more clear than on ‘Black Square’, which is named after the infamous painting by the Russian artist, Kazimir Malevich. Of course, it’s hard to describe just how revolutionary this picture – of a black square in a white void – was when it was unveiled in 1915. Nicky explains his fascination with the artist: “The idea of obliterating everything that had gone before, made me think of his art in the terms of punk rock. This painting was the starting point of what the artist saw suddenly not being as important as what the artist felt.”
Of course, if this all sounds typically intellectual, the band aren’t so sure themselves. Nicky admits that for the first time ever some of the lyrics on this album are there primarily to serve the aesthetics of the music. Backing this shift in emphasis, ‘Futurology’ also contains two instrumentals. The first of these tracks, which nods to the monumental basslines carved out for Sons And Fascination-era Simple Minds by Derek Forbes and the chiming post-post-punk guitars of John McGeoch, is ‘Dreaming A City (Hughesovka)’ and was inspired by a book that Nicky gave to James at Christmas. James explains: “The book is called Dreaming A City which is about a Welsh industrialist John Hughes who went over and set up the first steel foundry and coal mine in the Ukraine. And he called it Hughesovka. It was such folly based on such monumental ego but he actually went and did it. You can walk around in life completely unaware of how many narratives that all of these cities, towns and even buildings have. It’s so easy to just miss all of it.”
The way that the Manics have come to use geographical places (and the narratives that lie behind them) to act as emotional metaphors for describing their interior terrain is now core to them. And ‘The View From Stow Hill’ is a classic example of this style of songwriting. The lyric concerns the 15 minute walk from where Nicky lives to the train station in Newport and this physical journey is emphasised in the track by the “three dimensional sense of space” that James got from the lyrics and also by the way that Sean Moore fleshed out the song with synths and electronics. However, the trip is also a temporal one, back in political history to the march of the Chartists down from the valleys in November 1839 to where they were shot down in Newport by soldiers – the bullet holes still visible in the brickwork of the Westgate Hotel. The trip also reaches back in time to more recent personal history, to the Stow Hill of their teenage years, when they would visit the local labour club to watch Husker Du and The Butthole Surfers.
The Manics have, as you’d expect, found many like-minded souls to collaborate with. On ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’ (“Europe passes through me”) the German actress Nina Hoss – star of such cult films as Barbara and Yella – acts as a Pan European political dominatrix on vocals while the Manics successfully reimagine Giorgio Moroder joining the ranks of Goldfrapp. This sensuous electro disco barnstormer was born out of the conflict James felt between being an old fashioned European federalist and his realisation caused by two decades of continental touring that none of the individual countries are remotely like one another. He says: “If you want to be part of the EU you have to construct this state by reconciling the differences between nations… And we never have this type of discussion in Britain do we? It’s either really horrible dim witted right wing arguments or dim witted left wing arguments.” Elsewhere on ‘Divine Youth’ – a song partially inspired by a high street store making bootleg Manics T-shirts from a Mitch Ikeda photograph of a youthful Nicky and Richey – the preternaturally talented Welsh singer and harpist Georgia Ruth, shows up to add sublime texture.
On ‘Next Jet To Leave Moscow’ (which also features Cian Ciaran from Super Furry Animals on synths and electronics), James recalls an argument with a drunk resident of a former soviet bloc country, and reflects on certain controversial aspects of the band’s history reflected through the prism of this meeting: “When we went to Cuba we actually just wanted to see what it would be like. We wanted to see how it would rub off on our audience and ourselves. We didn’t go there to endorse everything. Of course once you have your picture taken with a politician you do endorse everything that they say and that’s unfortunate. It’s something we should have been aware of. There is a nod and a wink to our own failings in this song but there’s also reference to the failures of post ideology.”
Talking of the album title’s reference to foretelling of the near future, probably the most chilling and prescient piece of futurology ever was George Orwell’s prediction in the novel 1984 that we would end up permanently at war abroad with the aim of controlling the populace at home. Permanent conflict abroad is now part of the neo-liberal, disaster capitalism agenda and this is referenced by the rocket powered and satirical ‘Let’s Go To War’. Of course, the song isn’t just intended in its more literal meaning. Nicky says: “There is also a sense of metaphorical war within ourselves, which is to say, why do we still feel this desperate and innate need to scream our point of view?” The band see it as forming the third part of a loose trilogy of songs that was started with ‘You Love Us’ and ‘Masses Against The Classes’. He adds: “All these songs give me the same feeling of abandon… one last time, let’s just go down in fucking flames. These three songs are analysing our pretty daft desire for destruction.”
Perhaps, the song that will cause the most consternation or intrigue among some Manics observers is the beautiful first single ‘Walk Me To The Bridge’ with its heartfelt refrain: “So long my fatal friend I don’t need this to end / I reimagine the steps you took / Still blinded by your intellect / Walk me to the bridge, walk me to the bridge.” Nicky explains how the lyrics were written some years previous when he was thinking about leaving the band (the “fatal friend”) himself: “People might have the idea that this song contains a lot of Richey references but it really isn’t about that, it’s about the Øresund Bridge that joins Sweden and Denmark. A long time ago when we were crossing that bridge I was flagging and thinking about leaving the band. When I gave James the lyrics I’d imagined it as being this gnarly seven minute long album track and he brought it back edited down as this really exciting, commercial sounding song. That’s when I thought, ‘Uh-oh, here we go…'” James takes a more militant stance: “In this day and age, it’s almost like you get an imaginary knighthood for saying nothing. It would be a shame if we had to censor ourselves for fear of what people would say. If that was the case I’d just call it a day.”
Luckily for us, it now feels like the Manics calling it a day is less likely than it has been for years. On ‘Futurology’, they have excised some existential dread, reconnected the dots with the optimism of their past and opened up a bridge to the future. Nicky concludes: “We chose this quote by the Russian Constructivist artist Aleksander Rodchenko to go on the sleeve that says, ‘The lines are joined by finding one another’ and this reflects the hopeful, uplifting qualities of the album – namely a belief in the possibilities offered by the future. The possibilities of being moved and inspired by any kind of art.”
John Doran, London, April 2014