When Nicky Wire announced in 2010 that the Manic Street Preachers were going to have “an extended break”, we all knew that their eventual return would be an interesting one. Their formula had begun to wear thin, and with the “last shot at mass communication” that was ‘Postcards From A Young Man’, they were often repeating themselves to lesser effect. A realisation that rock bands could no longer have hit singles coincided with a turning point moment for the group, where they decided that a rethink was in order. So they returned last year with the wonderful ‘Rewind The Film’, an album that finally accepted that their days of mainstream superstardom were in the past, and that trying to repeat themselves was doing them no good. It had a sad, resigned tone to it, like an admission of growing old and feeling past your prime. It also took a retrospective look at their own past, as well as the gradual erosion of the things they hold dear, laid a few ghosts to rest and tried to figure out a way forward, all things that continue in a much more proactive manner on ‘Futurology’. They’ve had plenty of experience at bouncing back, trying to make a fresh start, and changing people’s perception of what they “should” be. Wasn’t a lot of ‘Everything Must Go’ about that? Maybe it’s impossible to “escape from a history” as eventful and astonishing as the one the Manics have had, but ‘Futurology’ ensures that they can still stay significant and relevant, proving that their continued existence is not only necessary, but hugely vital.
The difference between this and the preceding album is immediately apparent as the bright, uplifting title track bursts in. “We’ll come back one day, we never really went away” sings Nicky on a wonderful chorus, which sadly isn’t matched by a somewhat unconvincing verse. Of course they never really went away, ‘Futurology’ is about finding a new sense of purpose. And plenty of it can be found in the triumphant ‘Walk Me To The Bridge’, which pushes forward like some sort of transportation powering across the continent through the night, delivering a sucker punch of a chorus that has heavy touches of 80s stadium rock to it. Although it may initially sound like it was written about the disappearance of former lyricist Richey Edwards, it’s actually “about the Øresund Bridge that joins Sweden and Denmark”, as Nicky explains. “A long time ago when we were crossing that bridge I was flagging and thinking about leaving the band (the “fatal friend”). It’s about the idea of bridges allowing you an out of body experience as you leave and arrive in different places.” Lyrically it often sees them trying to make some sense of their current position, asking themselves questions, reflecting on their own history, and taking a leap forward into unknown territories, excited by the uncertainty of what the future holds. Fully aware that “old songs leave long shadows”, it’s an album that sets out to cross new bridges, defy expectations and not be afraid to take risks. Ironically for a band no longer trying to write hit singles, this album delivers their most infectious choruses in years.
Indeed it is a very different kettle of fish to its predecessor, which was recorded during the same sessions. While ‘Rewind The Film’ “can’t fight this war anymore”, ‘Futurology’ declares that “we need to go to war again”, as the band take a stand against the lack of rebellion in today’s popular culture on the abrasive, unsettling militant groove of ‘Let’s Go To War’. Imagining a frightening future where “working class skeletons lay scattered in museums”, it’s a surprising moment that’s not too far from a sinister trip hop version of ‘In The Hall Of The Mountain King’. The magnificent ‘Next Jet To Leave Moscow’ references their past flirtations with Communism over a liberated, Krautrock-flavoured backdrop that brings to mind the similar energetic melancholy of The Clash‘s ‘Spanish Bombs’, and comes complete with an elevating guitar solo from JDB. There are echoes of ‘The Holy Bible’ too, but the tone is a great deal more introspective, and beautifully melodic. The European influence isn’t just a purely musical one, as the intense, menacing stomp ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’ demonstrates, with its references to roads and motion symbolic of a group travelling forwards. A commanding German-sung second verse from actress Nina Hoss sends shivers down the spine. Once again the Manics sound dangerous, and prepared to stand up and fight.
However, the record is dragged down needlessly by the ill-fitting oriental ballad ‘Divine Youth’, an awkward sounding collaboration with Welsh harpist Georgia Ruth which doesn’t work as a duet, and doesn’t capture the imagination in the same way as the rest of the album. B side quality at best. It’s followed by the complete contrast of ‘Sex, Power, Love And Money’, a startling blast of grunge-disco where we find James barking out the verses like a rock n roll army sergeant before launching into a mighty chorus that again shows the Clash’s influence on them hasn’t worn off and probably never will. It also contains a blistering guitar solo that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on either of the first three albums. Then we’re treated to one of the biggest surprises here, the instrumental post-punk freak out ‘Hugheskova (Dreaming A City)’, which recalls ‘Low’-era Bowie doing a cosmic funk cop show theme. In particular, the atmosphere and superb drum sound seem to have been influenced by ‘Low”s ‘Speed Of Life’, which like ‘Futurology’, was recorded at the Hansa studios near the Berlin Wall.
Lines are drawn between the slate-wiping ideas of radical Russian art and the hollowness of modern culture’s dumbed down, disposable nature on pretty synth lament ‘Black Square’, a slow burning beauty which revisits musical ground last heard on 2004’s opinion-dividing ‘Lifeblood’. ‘Futurology’ is also destined to provoke initial mixed reactions. On the first listen, I didn’t immediately warm to many of these songs, and felt that the band I fell in love with were barely recognisable anymore. After the second time I played it, all that changed. One thing that takes a lot of getting used to at first is the unfamiliar sound of the occasional guest vocalists. On the stunning ‘Between The Clock And The Bed’, you could easily be forgiven for beginning to think that the CD has accidentally been mispressed with another artist’s track, as Scritti Pollitti man Green Gartside‘s voice emerges over the relaxed soul groove it slips smoothly into. However, by the time Bradfield’s soaring, life affirming vocal melody arrives near the end, you may very well have fallen in love with another new side of the Manics. And that dazzling, uplifting feeling that shines throughout the song? Look beneath and examine the tortured lyrics, inspired by an unsettling painting by Norwegian artist Munch which gave the track its name. Returning immediately to darker musical territory is the incredible ‘Misguided Missile’, the sort of urgent, trail blazing excitement that we haven’t heard from them in years. As well as featuring a hugely enjoyable bassline, it rhymes “schadenfreude” with “void”, and delivers another massive singalong chorus. Joining the dots with ‘Rewind The Film’ is the ghostly, melancholic sigh of ‘(The View From) Stow Hill’, which would rather spend time appreciating the world’s natural beauty than indulging in a modern routine of “misguided tweets” and “sad Facebooking”. It would have made a charming closer, but instead ‘Mayakovsky’ ends the record with a noodly instrumental hard rock sci-fi jam that’s interesting enough but not really substantial or remarkable enough to be included here.
While ‘Rewind The Film’ is a more consistent and focused album, ‘Futurology’ strikes the most powerful blows, but gets points deducted for a few wobbly moments. Still, you can’t expect them to try new things and not make the odd error. As well as movements in new directions, we still get all the things that have always made the Manics great: the incredible tunes, the slogans, the values, and of course James Dean Bradfield‘s magnificent voice. I’ll say that these last two albums both stand as their strongest works since the 90s. Reignited once again, with ‘Futurology’ the Manics have written one of the most interesting chapters in their fascinating and eventful story. [Rating:4]