A Twitter meme at the Manic Street Preachers’ expense, witheringly captioning a promo photograph of the band posing in a field wearing crumpled, ill-fitting suits, rather captures their present dilemma: the once balaclava-sporting Welsh punk-rock insurrectionaries are shuffling slightly awkwardly into middle age. One tweeter likened them to the cast of some new ITV crime drama; another Photoshopped the image to look like an ad for ambulance-chasing personal-injury lawyers. “Manic Street Teachers” was another cutting bon mot.
And this gig becomes a lesson in snarling intellectualism, beginning in typically wordy fashion before the band have even appeared, as a quote from Albert Camus hangs on the big screen in ominous red capital letters. “The modern mind is in complete disarray,” it reads. “Knowledge has stretched itself to the point where neither the world nor our intelligence can find any foothold. It is a fact that we are suffering from nihilism.”
Finding things to say has never been a struggle for this Blackwood secondary school-formed trio, not least for the band’s gangly, mouthy, sunglasses-wearing bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire. Their 14th album Resistance Is Futile is rich with familiar existential ponderings through a prism of art, literature and leftwing politics, touching on all from Yves Klein, Francis Bacon and David Bowie to the doomed marriage of Dylan Thomas and Caitlin Macnamara, and lots of ruminations on the current information-saturated human condition foreshadowed by Camus.
But it feels like some of the melodic and performative conviction that typically fires their ideas has faded, as the galloping clip of the band’s remarkable latter-career renaissance period perhaps inevitably starts to slow. Opener International Blue is a classic glam-banging Manics single, distinguished by one of those rifle-fire guitar riffs at which frontman James Dean Bradfield so excels. But of the four other new songs they play tonight, Distant Colours and People Give In included, it’s hard to imagine any of them sticking around their setlist any longer than current promotional duties necessitate.
The rest is a mixture of the reliably magnificent, the obscure and the curiously judged. Motorcycle Emptiness roars like a battle cry in memory of the genius and cheekbones of the band’s missing-presumed-dead guitarist Richey Edwards, who is “here with us tonight” Wire promises. In an amusingly wimpy climax to a song about Welsh International Brigade volunteer fighters in the Spanish civil war, confetti cannons salute the final chorus of If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next. Rarity 4 Ever Delayed is one for the “trainspotters” in the Manics fanbase, as Bradfield puts it, while the rousing Masses Against the Classes is another lesser-aired treat. Bradfield’s solo acoustic versions of Sleepflower, Faster and Kevin Carter, however, don’t exactly prove the kind of crowd-pleasing singalongs to ensure participation even in the cheap seats. Unperturbed, Wire – a man who you can always count upon to look like he’s gotten dressed in a charity shop in the dark – seizes the chance for a costume change, swapping an unusually understated black ensemble for silver spandex trousers, a plum-coloured suit jacket and a panama hat.
A Design for Life proves the only moment that all present seem to agree upon as being truly essential. But then, the day when hearing this national treasure bellowed back at the Manics fails to raise the hairs on your neck is the day to question whether rock’n’roll gigs are still for you.