Manic Street Preachers’ 11th studio album opens with its title track. The music is taut and punchy and urgent: the vocals swirl with reverb, James Dean Bradfield’s serrated, Skids-influenced guitar toughs it out for space with icy draughts of electronics. It sounds triumphant, but the lyrics tell a rather different story. They’re racked with self-doubt and disappointment, a litany of failure and “broken plans”.
Moreover, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to think that the lyrics seem to be about the Manic Street Preachers themselves. “We’ll come back one day, we never really went away,” runs the chorus of Futurology, which sounds like a typically perceptive assessment of the issues facing a band of such longevity. For nearly a quarter of a century, the Manic Street Preachers have been a fixture of British rock. Given how combustible they initially seemed, they’ve proved remarkably consistent in their latter years: even their least successful album, 2004’s Lifeblood, went silver and came cluttered with intriguing ideas. But consistency tends to get you taken for granted: it’s as if audiences want dramatic peaks and troughs, a narrative of disasters and comebacks, to keep their attention. That’s even more true of the media, although in the Manics’ case, their interest has been held by bassist Nicky Wire’s legendary inability to keep his opinions to himself. Had they been blessed with a bass player capable of shutting his trap once in a while, they might well have faded from view, into a half-life of solid reviews, ageing diehard fans and back-catalogue tours, regardless of the quality of their music.
Nothing if not self-aware, you suspect this is a fact of which this band are perfectly cognisant. Too smart to waste everyone’s time going through the motions, their recent output has been marked by the sense of a band torn between winding down and carrying on. Wire described 2010’s Postcards from a Young Man as “one last shot at mass communication”. From its title down, last year’s Rewind the Film had an elegiac quality to it, replete with songs about the melancholy nostalgia of middle age.
It makes Futurology all the more startling. It was apparently recorded in tandem with Rewind the Film at Berlin’s legendary Hansa studio, but it couldn’t be more different. For all the beauty of its melodies, its predecessor felt reflective and resigned. By contrast, Futurology feels invigorated and exhilarating. All the self-laceration in its lyrics – behind the sparkling pop melody of The Next Jet to Moscow lurks a portrait of Wire as “an old jaded commie … the biggest living hypocrite you’ll ever see”; Walk Me to the Bridge’s acknowledgement that “old songs leave long shadows”; the protagonist of Between the Clock and the Bed mired in “hatred and failure growing perfectly together” – seems to have spurred them into decisive action.
As their biographer Simon Price once noted, Wire has a tendency to talk up new Manics albums in outlandish terms, wildly citing musical precedents that no one but he can hear in the finished product: heavy metal Tamla Motown, Goldfrapp meets late-70s Bowie. This time, however, they have succeeded in threading a set of fresh influences through their trademark sound. You hear it most dramatically on Europa Geht Durch Mich’s ferocious electronic glam stomp – Add N to (X)ish synthesisers squealing over a bovver-booted rhythm section, Bradfield trading verses with the stentorian voice of German actor Nina Hoss – and in the instrumental Dreaming a City (Hugheskova). The obvious comparison for the latter is Simple Minds’ Theme for Great Cities, although its melody bears a John Barry-like quality: in a typical Manics twist, the great city of their title was a Russian industrial powerhouse, founded by a Welshman and initially populated by workers shipped in from Merthyr Tydfil. Elsewhere, the tense, metronomic pulse of Neu! underpins The Next Jet to Leave Moscow and Misguided Missile, and the kind of sampled orchestral stabs that studded the early output of the ZTT label and Thomas Dolby’s forgotten 1984 masterpiece The Flat Earth burst around military drum rolls on Divine Youth. The appearance of Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside on Between the Clock and the Bed, meanwhile, is a masterstroke: there’s something really thrilling about hearing the honeyed sweetness of his voice clash with the rawness of Bradfield’s vocals.
Of course, plenty of bands have adopted influences from 80s post-punk pop and krautrock in recent years, but they’ve seldom weaved them into their own sound this deftly. Futurology never feels like a pastiche, and sounds unmistakably like the Manic Street Preachers while sounding unlike any other album they’ve made. From the glorious chorus of Walk Me to the Bridge to Black Square’s lovely shifts in tempo, the songwriting is almost unerringly great. Indeed, it stretches the boundaries of their sound so skilfully that that the track that bears most resemblance to the Richey Edwards-era Manic Street Preachers – Sex, Power, Love and Money, a distant, shouty cousin of Generation Terrorists’ Repeat (Stars and Stripes) – sounds a bit clunky by comparison.
There’s something rather telling about that. The best most artists can hope to achieve this far into their career, with their commercial peak 20 years behind them, is to make an album that cravenly evokes their “classic” sound, in the hope of jogging a few memories, and provoking reviews that blithely talk about a return to form. Futurology, on the other hand, doesn’t recall the Manic Street Preachers’ debut album, but it could pass for a debut album – and that’s an infinitely more surprising and appealing state of affairs. “We’ve done the best we can,” offers the title track, dolefully. As it turns out, that’s more than good enough.
• This review has been corrected; it originally stated Futurology was the band’s 11th album.