Over the next coming days, I’m set to finally roll out my favorite records of last year, 2014. Today’s sole entry is my favorite record. Remaining posts will be a collection of brief reviews in capsule form.
Putting the Manic Street Preachers into a historical setting is perhaps the greatest way to begin to see just how special the band continues to be. As they entered their third decade recording music there wasn’t any reason to believe they would be any different from any other once great band reaching that point; the Who had seen their third decade together birth the post-Keith Moon unevenness of Face Dances and It’s Hard; the Rolling Stones produced as much dreck in the 80’s (Emotional Rescue, Tattoo You, Undercover, Dirty Work, and Steel Wheels are all so hit and miss that only Voodoo Lounge‘s general blandness makes them passable in comparison) as David Bowie did (Tonight is as middling as he’s ever been and the later work with Tin Machine only points to this conclusion even more: though to be fair to Bowie you’d admit that this is the Manics twelfth album, while Bowie was still that strong too—his twelfth was Heroes after all). The Kinks could even be thrown into the mix, and hell, if it wasn’t for the resurrection on Delta Machine, Depeche Mode would be pointing to the same ether after the retro-thud of Sounds of the Universe. Saying all this, especially in 2014, the Manic Street Preachers seem most closely comparable with U2, they both are attempting rejuvenation and relevance within the larger framework of politically charged arena-art rock, but where U2 released one of the blandest records by a major artist ever in 2014 (with Songs of Innocence) coupled with the complete missing of the mark that was the Apple iTunes giveaway/breach of privacy, the Manic Street Preachers miraculously continued to release some of their most forward looking music of their ever growing career. The fact that the music is as chart ready as it is politically astute only laments even stronger at the thrust of the music on display here.
Futurology is the metallic sometimes-Krautrock-sometimes-straight-ahead-4-on-the-floor-driving-post-punk-guitar-rock yin to 2013’s Rewind the Film‘s ethereal acoustic balladry yang. They were made to purposefully compliment each other in this way, an outpouring of songs written in the same breath to later be realized as two separate distinct moods (Rewind the Film‘s standout is the operatic, mournful ’30-Year War’, a song written about Margaret Thatcher before her death, to only become a perfect piss off to her once she passed later in the year). The twin albums in a year span only act to provide an exclamation point on the sentence the wonderful Journal for Plague Lovers had made in 2009 (itself a companion to their early masterpiece from 1994, The Holy Bible). The Manics were back in full force after a slightly lukewarm middle 2000s.
Recorded in Berlin, often with a sheen befitting Krautrock the decision seems fitting; many of the songs toy with an idea that in turning to scientific precision and methodology in regards to its economy, post-unified Germany has been the one able to withstand the constant banking roller coasters that economies reliant on demagogy cannot (ahem, United States). In doing so, the future of Europe looks more Germanic than any dream Hitler could have envisioned on his most optimistic days. ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’ seems to most readily deal with this conundrum (complete with military like stomp), while elsewhere the touches just sweep in and out, and around the songs. ‘Futurology’ is guitar shimmer bliss, while ‘Walk Me to the Bridge’ a wonderfully remorseful statement on the powerful nature of looking at difficulties past, present and future. ‘Let’s Go to War’ is braggadocio pomp, featuring Nicky Wire’s lovely low end driving bass part, ‘Divine Youth’ (featuring a poetic guest vocal by fellow Wales musician, Georgie Ruth) providing a ballad counterpoint to all the rock (which follows on the stadium pleaser, ‘Sex, Power, Love and Money’). ‘Between the Clock and the Bed’ seems to be in this softer vein, but its backing features a staccato drum (machine?) shifting, offering the song a distinctly contemporary edge. As a throw back ‘Dreaming a City (Hugheskova)’ seems to be doing something right out of the Cold War Nintendo relic Contra (both a strange and exhilarating thought). To me, the albums masterpiece track is the four-minutes-eight-seconds that is ‘Black Square’. It opens to a building stomp, coupled with lyric passages about modern art (the title is a reference to Malevich’s Black Square paintings) and the ‘tyranny of objects’. Art hear doesn’t seem to belong in any modern, or pre-modern context, but, they seem to argue, a universal dialogue outside mere historical classification where human perfection is more than a ‘haunting’. While the Germanic sound is all over the record, here, it’s been said Germany literally enters the record; the sound of filmgoers can be heard before a Berlin screening of Tarantino’s antebellum South epic Django Unchained recorded by drummer Moore’s handy iPhone microphone. Adding a title like this, and the abstraction of a line like “Purged of all colour the purest abstraction” implies that the tyranny at play here—of objects, of slaveries many shackles, of non-decisions (as non-choices)—are all the result of the constant Manics enemy: capitalistic power structures. The song winds down with a syncopated guitar/synth loop over what would be the normal section for a blistering Bradfield solo (is there a more unheralded guitar hero?), but here an orchestra starts building too and it all explodes into a heavenly rereading of the songs central chorus.
An album this good, with political commentary this strikingly sharp, that you perhaps for the first time in their storied careers realize why they are so unfairly maligned Stateside. There could be a great argument made that since Grunge, or say, 1990 they are the greatest rock band we’ve had. They’ve sold over ten million records, had several number one hits, won countless awards (Brit Awards four times) all not being said to cite artistic ability—sales and awards mean squat in these terms—but rather to state the total incompetence of our music distribution and journalism. Can you believe an album this good, by a band this renowned, wasn’t even reviewed, let alone recommended, by Pitchfork, Spin, Rolling Stone, et al? What’s the point in thinking you’re rock-cred glitterati when you can’t be bothered to do your job? In ‘Walk Me to the Bridge’ (their song that seems to again poignantly deal with Richie’s loss) they sing, “with nothing left that we can give/we smile at this ugly world/It never really suited you” seems like a just and fitting final cadence to our harbingers of taste. They never really suited us, and in forgetting to bother with the album of the year, they don’t really suit their titles either. The Manics have the last word, of course, in literally the last words of the record. Over the closing ‘Mayakovsky’ we hear the female voice chorus of the earlier ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’ repeated, “…. European hopes…” resting us in such arresting optimism. The sound of the future, the past, and very much the present, delivered in a glorious coalescing of power that only great rock music can muster. The Manics have turned into elder statesmen before our very eyes (and ears) and yet the tunes strut like their youth 25 years past and think like wrinkled wise men not yet even in their 50s. Maybe that’s the implied future in the title?