A Masterpiece: Simon Price On Manic Street Preachers' Futurology
, July 3rd, 2014 10:14
All hail the Manics, writes Simon Price, for in Futurology they've finally delivered an album that completely walks it like they talk it
They've done it. At last, they've actually gone and done it.
Ever since the turn of the Millennium, in the run-up to roughly every other Manic Street Preachers album, Nicky Wire has, in public interviews and private postcards, had a habit of talking up the unheard and unmade record as "Our European album, Berlin Bowie meets Goldfrapp meets PiL" or words to that effect. In fact, as long ago as 1994, this sort of talk was already in the air: in a live review from the Holy Bible tour for Melody Maker, I wrote "So where now? One rumour says the Manics are giving up Americana as a bad idea, and immersing themselves in stylised Europa circa 1980 (James has been giving away copies of Simple Minds' Empires And Dance as presents)."
And yet, with unerring certainty, the record, when it finally emerges, just sounds like a Manics album. Even the cold, detached Lifeblood (which essentially reprised certain musical themes from This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours). Even the brilliantly brutal Journal For Plague Lovers (a direct and conscious throwback to The Holy Bible). It's one of their enduring charms, in fact: an inability, despite all their efforts, to sound like anyone other than themselves. That is, until Futurology, an album which, upon first hearing on an advance promo several months ago, immediately leapt to third-equal place in my personal MSP hierarchy, and may, when I've lived with it a while longer, creep higher still.
But before we talk about what Futurology is, let's define what it isn't. Less than a year ago, the Manics released the album with which it forms a diptych, Rewind The Film. You only had to look at RTF, never mind listen to it, to know what you were going to get (few bands understand the power of a visual image better than the Manics). The sleeve featured a treated, motion-blurred Polaroid (taken by Wire) of the side-barrier on the Severn Crossing. For a Welshman, it's what you see when you're going home, and going home is what Rewind The Film was all about. The palette of colours, too, were pale pastel blues, echoing the artwork of Everything Must Go, This Is My Truth and Send Away The Tigers, a coded sign that this was going to be one of the Manics' more conventional and less horse-spooking works.
A gentle, pastoral, warm-hearted record, which quoted both Lenin and Lennon, featured the wonderful Richard Hawley and sampled Captain Beefheart's 'The Dust Blows Forward And The Dust Blows Back' (on the original promo, at least, before they were refused clearance by the Van Vliet estate), it had much to recommend it. Not least, the fact that it provided a pretext for the Manics' in-house film director, the BAFTA-winning Kieran Evans, to make a genuinely heartbreaking trilogy of videos comprising a before/during/after narrative about the impact of the Miners' Strike on the Valleys of South Wales. It also featured some of James Dean Bradfield's most dazzlingly intricate fingerwork to date. There was, nevertheless, a sense that the Manics weren't doing anything we hadn't heard from them before – another album full of lyrics about how defeated and knackered Nicky Wire was feeling, and how much he was missing Richey – and also a sense that, if you're finding yourself talking up the proficiency of the guitarist as a selling point, something's slightly off. It provided the loyal fan with plenty to enjoy, without ever making you feel like screaming its praises from the rooftops or grabbing the lapels of the hitherto-unconvinced or the long-lapsed and demanding that they hear it.
Everything Rewind The Film isn't, Futurology is: a record that will spook the horses, that does do something we haven't heard from the Manics before, and does make you feel like accosting virtual strangers and boring them half to death about how great it is.
The first sign that Rewind The Film's sister album would be a different proposition was, again, a visual one. Manics followers attuned to semiology would have spotted the clue when the ads started appearing in music magazines for the band's March/April 2014 tour, featuring that minimalist, pseudo-Soviet font with the backwards Rs from The Holy Bible (stolen, of course, from Simple Minds' aforementioned Empires And Dance), with a triptych of Wire-Bradfield-Moore photos underneath consciously echoing Jenny Saville's Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face) paintings, as used on that album. The message was clear, to anyone who wanted to read it: THAT version of the Manics was back, and Futurology was going to be one of THOSE albums.
And oh my god, it really is. There aren't many artists I can think of who are able to deliver something as vital as Futurology on their twelfth studio album. In fact, historically there's just one: David Bowie. And Bowie's twelfth was Heroes. Therefore it's fitting that the Manics actually used Hansa studios in Berlin, where both those albums were recorded, for their own twelfth effort.
But it's also an album steeped in Germanophilia, Russophilia and Europhilia in general, from the Eastern European feel of several song titles to the cement-grey sleeve of the promo CD (the final artwork, by German artist Catrine Val, features a female figure standing statuesque in an icy, fir-flanked park, dressed for a different climate than the one she's in). It's only right, then, that they should have gone there to make it. It's where their heads were at, so they may as well have sent their bodies to join them.
The Manics are never shy of wearing their influences like war medals, so let's do a little number-crunching here. In the explanatory notes that Nicky Wire has circulated to journalists, there are no fewer than three mentions each for David Bowie, Simple Minds and Public Image Ltd, two for Can, one each for Can's fellow Krautrockers Popol Vuh, Cluster and Tangerine Dream as well as Nouvelle-Krauts Stereolab and Kreidler, and there's a distinctly Europäisch/80s flavour to other individual namedrops like Bill Nelson, Goldfrapp, Propaganda, Skids, Prefab Sprout, Colourbox, U2, Thomas Dolby and Robert Fripp (with only a handful, like Faith No More, Andy Weatherall, Ike & Tina Turner, Nirvana, the Rolling Stones and Y Niwl, failing to fit into the emerging pattern).
As musical mission statements go, this list couldn't be much clearer. However, the opening - and title - track does everything it can to wrong-foot you into thinking this is business as usual for the Manics. 'Futurology' is an old skool Manics up-and-at-'em anthem. Its opening line, "Defenders of the faith", is a classic piece of Manics detournement, the British monarch's traditional title fidei defensor (as seen in abbreviated form on all British coinage) repurposed by a band of unrepentant republicans who once released a single with the chorus "Repeat after me/Fuck Queen and Country".
From that moment onwards, however, Futurology resolutely lives up to every claim made for it by the bigmouth on the bass. 'Walk Me To The Bridge', with its restlessly metronomic tick-tock bassline and big New Gold Dream sunburst crescendoes, is accompanied by another Kieran Evans video, set in Berlin and heavily influenced by Tom Tykwer's 1998 film Run, Lola, Run, and the song itself takes us deep into European territory. Originally inspired by a drive across enormous and futuristic Øresund Bridge (which connects Denmark to Sweden), it also apparently refers to the Die Brucke (The Bridge) group of German expressionist artists active circa 1905 whose aim was to build a "bridge to the future", placing it in the lineage of the Manics' oft-overlooked visual arts-literate side, which stretches back to songs about Vincent Van Gogh and Willem De Kooning on Gold Against The Soul and Everything Must Go respectively. Futurology, like all the Manics' best work, is rich with these sorts of cultural, political and artistic references. It creates a pop-up museum in the mind, sending the listener on a potentially endless exploratory journey, pursuing the pointers and chasing the clues.
Nevertheless, if Futurology has a "we're missing Richey" moment, 'Walk Me To The Bridge' is it. Wire has gone out of his way to clarify that the song isn't about that, while acknowledging that others will assume that it is. And, with lines like "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...", it's an assumption that's incredibly difficult to avoid. Indeed, with couplets like "'Take me to the bridge' had another meaning/Singing it loud at the indie disco", it's pretty evident that whatever denials and misdirections Wire may make, no sane reading of 'Walk Me To The Bridge' can come to any other conclusion.
Futurology's third track is an absolute funk-noir monster. From the very first drum fill from Sean Moore, who plays a blinder here, 'Let's Go To War' is the album at its most PiL-heavy: the main riff welds Tchaikovsky's Slavonic March to Grieg's In The Hall Of The Mountain King in exactly the same manner that Lydon, Wobble, Levene & co purloined Swan Lake for 'Death Disco' (the similarity is so outrageous that it must be a knowing acknowledgement). Wire has called it "the final part of the 'You Love Us'/'Masses Against The Classes' trilogy", and lyrically that does holds up: with lines like "The views they will now darken/The knives they will now sharpen", it's a nihilistic kamikaze call-to-arms against the English upper classes who have, Wire argues, "turned rock & roll into a career path". If it bears musical comparison to any earlier Manics track, though, it's a gothic cousin to 'Miss Europa Disco Dancer', that much-maligned beauty from Know Your Enemy. The most instantly addictive track on the album, and one that has you absolutely beaming with vicarious relish at how they're enjoying this.
'The Next Jet To Leave Moscow' is a self-critical pisstake by Wire of his only-slightly-younger self, with its epithets "old jaded Commie" and "silly little fucker", and its mentions of Cuba and Red Square. The couplet "With Rediffusion eyes of yesteryear/I’m the biggest living hypocrite you’ll ever see" chimes with the rise of Ostalgie in Germany, a portmanteau pun combining Ost (East) and nostalgie (nostalgia), which describes a longing among the young for the trappings of the old Soviet bloc. It's debatable whether the Manics were ever guilty of such a thing themselves: Richey had his quasi-Tankie moments, like 'All Is Vanity', which appeared to fantasise about living within a Communist planned economy ("I would prefer no choice/One bread, one milk, one food that's all/I'm confused, I only want one truth/I really don't mind being lied to...") but Wire's politics invariably appear more closely-aligned with The Redskins' (SWP-borrowed) slogan 'Neither Washington Nor Moscow But International Socialism'. Then again, self-flagellation for political inadequacies is nothing new for Nicky Wire, the band's equal-biggest hit 'If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next' being partly a critique of his own cowardice and lack of commitment.
'Europa Geht Durch Mich' (Europe Passes Through Me) doesn't just sound like Goldfrapp: it plain goddamn IS Goldfrapp, to the extent that you can only burst out laughing the first time you hear that electro-glam schaffel intro, a synthesized klaxon blast every eighth beat, and realise that it isn't actually a cover of the Frapp's 'Train'. Wire can try throwing people off the scent by calling it an "industrial/dominatrix 'Nutbush City Limits'" till he's blue in the face, but he's fooling nobody. A hymn to "movement as salvation", it begins by directly quoting Simple Minds' neuro-disco Moroder-munching motherfucker 'I Travel' in its opening line ("Europe had a language problem"), and its main refrain repeats the phrases "European skies – European desires - European roads – European hopes - European sons – European love - European dreams – European screams" over and over until, in the song's second quarter, actress Nina Hoss, who in a neat (non?) coincidence starred alongside Run, Lola, Run's Franka Potente in the film of Houellebecq's Atomised, intones Wire's lyrics, after Bradfield has sung them, in Teutonic tones which are inevitably reminiscent of Nina Hagen or Lene Lovich. It's perhaps the closest thing the album gets to trite and on-the-nose, but if anyone's missed the point so far, at least they haven't any more.
If one song on Futurology could have lived comfortably on Rewind The Film, it's 'Divine Youth', a meditation on "the corporate ownership of revolt and coolness", a duet with Welsh Music Prize-winning singer-harpist Georgia Ruth (one of a number of Welsh musicians who make cameos across the album, including Cate Le Bon and Super Furry Animals' Cian Ciaran), and the most tranquil moment so far. By contrast, 'Sex, Power Love And Money' packs a real swagger. It was, says Wire, an attempted fusion of "Nirvana/'Undercover Of The Night'/The Skids" with a "Joe Strummer/Mick Jagger rap-like vocal", and that's about right. He doesn't mention Mooro's (I think) wood blocks, which are pure Charlie Watts, but anyone who knows 'Undercover' won't need that spelling out, just as anyone who knows about the Manics' boyhood outing to Bristol to see the Bunnymen will easily catch the reference to 'The Back Of Love'.
The title of 'Dreaming A City (Hughesovka)', an instrumental that sounds like pre-sharkjump Simple Minds composing a Cold War spy movie theme, refers to the original name of the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, where workers from Merthyr Tydfil were shipped in the 19th century by mining entrepreneur John Hughes, in whose honour the settlement was named Yuzovka (Юзовка). Surnames derived from Evans, Williams and Davies are still be found in the area, and the famous Shakhtar Donetsk football team ('shakhtar' meaning 'miner') can be traced back to those Welsh settlers. Like the mention of Patagonia in 'Ready For Drowning', or the rabbit-shooting farmer who joins the International Brigade in ''Tolerate', it's another little education in the history of the Welsh in the wider world - no mean achievement for a track that doesn't have any words.
'Black Square', again, admits to a Simple Minds influence (though I also hear melodic echoes of A Flock Of Seagulls' 'Wishing'), and again digs into the Manics' fascination with the world of art. The great Austrian abstract expressionist Egon Schiele's dictum that "Art is never modern, art is primordially eternal" is paraphrased here, as is Paul Valery's "Art is never finished, only abandoned" (often misattributed to Da Vinci or Picasso), and Kazimir Malevich's imperative to "Free yourselves from the tyranny of objects". The title is a reference to Malevich's Black Square, a Russian futurist opera concerning the capture and murder of the sun and the ending of time, and a black, square artwork which functioned as its third act (as explained in Robert Barry's recent Nicky Wire interview for The Quietus). And, if Futurology is characterised by a 'Berlin sound', 'Black Square' literally features the sound of Berlin: the chatter of cinema patrons before a screening of Django Unchained, surreptitiously recorded by Moore on his iPhone.
Every critic knows that a million words of art theory (like that explored in the previous song) can be vaporised by one moment of transcendent artistic beauty, and bang on cue, one arrives. 'Between The Clock And The Bed', named for a self-portrait from Edvard Munch's twilight years, features the honeyed vocals of Green Gartside from Scritti Politti, another Welsh hero who used entryism to get Big Ideas into the pop charts. A gentle and sumptuous piece of 80s soft pop, it embraces you in a reverie that seems to stop time itself. Although, when Gartside gets to the line "still building the bypass in my head", anyone who remembers Wire's infamous quote at Glastonbury in 1994 - "I say build some more fucking bypasses over this shithole" - can't help cracking up.
'Misguided Missile' is the most overtly Krautrock track in sound, and is, to be frank, a bit of a Germanic version of the Conchords' 'Foux De Fafa' lyrically, filled with the German phrases that British people know ('sturm und drang', 'schadenfreude', you're expecting 'vorsprung durch technik' any second). It also, however, casts back to The Holy Bible, whose DNA runs through Futurology (from the aforementioned font to the fact that Alex Silva, who worked on that legendary album, was re-hired for this one). On 'Faster', Richey Edwards wrote, "Self-disgust is self-obsession, honey". Here, Wire-via-Bradfield begins "I am a self-obsessed fool", and this time the disgust doesn't need spelling out.
The lessons learned from travel are worthless if they cannot be applied when you return home. 'The View From Stow Hill', which has a touch of The Cure's 'Lullaby' about it (as well as the Unforgettable Fire-era U2 that Wire acknowledges in his notes), is a reminder that Britain's own recent past is bloodier and more filled with insurrections and upheavals than the stately, swan-like serenity its ruling class would prefer to portray. In the same way that European cities - Barcelona, Belfast, Berlin - wear visible scars of conflict, so does a forgotten industrial metropolis like Newport, Wire's long-time home. "You can still see the bullet holes/You can still sense a little hope/Crushed dreams and the martyrs too" is a direct reference to the Chartist uprising of November 1839 and the slaughter of the innocents that ended it, as commemorated in a mural in John Frost Square which was controversially destroyed by the council in 2013, prompting the Manics' film-star mate (and sometime collaborator) Michael Sheen, born in Newport, to write a gloriously angry open letter. Mural or no mural, song or no song, the pockmarks in the wall of the Westgate Hotel forever bear witness to what went on.
The closing 'Mayakovsky', named for the Russian futurist poet and playwright who shot himself dead at 36, is another instrumental (give or take a few chants of its subject's surname), with a slight "Seven Nation Army" feel. It ends with a female voice reciting the "European hopes..." chorus from 'Europa Geht Durch Mich', this time in the dispassionate tones of a tannoy announcer at a U-Bahn station. The message of the whole album crackles over those speakers loud and clear: the transformative and inspirational power of transit on the human mind is such that even the banal and quotidian becomes sublime and enlightening.
For a band so often accused by their cynical detractors of failing to walk it like they talk it, there's something gloriously vindicatory about seeing Bradfield, Wire and Moore doing exactly what they said they were going to do here. Manic Street Preachers, a quarter-century since their first release, are presenting a face to the world as heroic as those in any Soviet constructivist propaganda poster. And Futurology is more than just THAT version of the Manics, and one of THOSE albums. It's a bona fide, solid-as-granite masterpiece.