Quest for Ancient Colour

Release date: 10/09/2021 | Length: 4:08 | Release: The Ultra Vivid Lament

My scream had lost its source

Quest for Ancient Colour represents all extremes of the Manic Street Preachers in the modern day. There’s lots of tiny aspects of this to analyse, but no rhyme or reason to dissect them by. Let’s do it chronologically.

The title

What a beautiful title. I remember listening to a Manics 6 Music special many years ago and someone on the show (possibly Nicky Wire himself) pointed out that songs titles reflect the energy of a band. An artist phoning it in will have plain names for songs, endlessly recycled across the whole of music. Something that cannot be taken away from the Manics are their unique monikers for songs (bar a few inescapable dozen used with purpose). You will not find another Motorcycle Emptiness or Of Walking Abortion by a contemporary band, and nor will you come across a second Quest for Ancient Colour. The only other hunt for such kaleidoscopic history was a documentary about classical Japanese art, and their rich colours (which also offers a neat parallel with 2017’s International Blue, a song about a colour).

The verse

One of those that seems only to exist for the necessity of getting to the chorus. It’s a piano ballad, just not an interesting one. The notes are far too plain and as a result makes James Dead Bradfield seem like he’s oversinging the song. I don’t think he is since his voice is naturally powerful, but it’s rather flavourless. The lyrics are filled with self-doubt, but stumble by offering the listener too much: “I had a very bad dream, The main actor in it was me”. Aspects that would previously go unsaid get a line.

The chorus

Now we’re cooking with gas. That tumbling drum fill from Sean Moore, reminiscent of Further Away, propels the song into life and makes for one of The Ultra Vivid Lament‘s most singable moments. The backing harmonies are cheap, but effective. The half-rhymes of ‘discover’ and ‘colour’ slide off the tongue, and with such a high-sounding chorus, there’s a certain amount of poise to it that prevents it from straining.

The guitar solo

What? There’s no real warning that Bradfield’s about to embark on a spiralling, spacey virtuoso, but he does. It’s obviously technically great because he’s a great guitar player, but why does this song need it? The song verges on Lifeblood territory, which did dignified guitar solos when called upon. There’s a bit in the pre-chorus second time round where there’s a subtle riff playing in the background that would’ve been so much more effective. Less is more.

So there we have it, a 2021 Manic Street Preachers song in a nutshell. A beguiling title belying a somewhat underwhelming skeleton, fleshed out with hooks and superfluity.

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Concrete Fields

Release date: 13/04/2018 | Length: 3:57 | Release: Resistance Is Futile (Deluxe Edition)

And the air is getting heavy with memory and loss

Whilst the Manic Street Preachers have adopted an introspective stance for many years now, it’s rare that their songs have been explicitly autobiographical. Usually these songs take on a form of hiraeth, a nostalgic longing tinged with poignancy. There’s a distinct Welshness to things even if the target of the song remains undefined. Concrete Fields is an overt trip down memory lane for Nicky Wire, throwing away metaphors in favour of a direct craving. James Dean Bradfield has sang out of his comfort zone before, but here it’d be impossible for him to convey the emotion that this song bristles with.

For a man of Wire’s literary talents the lines tend to look simplistic, but when you realise the closeness he has with his family, it becomes touchingly sweet. Resistance is Futile was written and recorded around the time that Wire’s mother was gravely ill, a disturbance that saw the Manics cancel gigs around this time. It’s a firm argument for the notion that basic lyrics can be perfectly emotive with the right execution.

My boyhood made of dreams of love, The happiest of times sitting with my mum and dad

Just me and my brother were kicking a ball, The world so close and so beautiful

The first verse laments the fading to grey that his south Wales hometown has taken over the years, but the heart still triumphs over the mind as he reminisces. Even though the feeling behind Concrete Fields isn’t a uniquely Welsh one, Wire sounds the Welshest he’s ever managed on the line: “And all I can do is sit here and moan”. There’s even space for a needlessly vigorous line about modern education delivered with a punchy punkness: “The vaping and the super schools, the breeding grounds of hate”.

As a coda, the song lifts the chorus from Seasons in the Sun, a moribund hit for Terry Jacks in 1974 amongst others: “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun”. An affecting and apposite way to sign off on this era of the group’s timeline, it’s a shame its exposure was capped so low.

Concrete Fields is far too personal to fit on any album, and in the nicest way possibly, isn’t good enough to either. The music, with its airy drums and twinkly keyboard solo, is merely a vehicle for Wire’s recollections. Therefore it finds a nice home on the deluxe edition of Resistance is Futile, a treat for long-term fans who’ll lap up any bonus content and for those who’ll connect with Wire’s pining.

Bright Eyes

Release date: 15/04/1996 | Length: 3:13 | Release: A Design for Life

Following the river of death downstream

God this song’s depressing. Art Garfunkel and Mike Batt’s song from the late 70s was written for the 1978 film Watership Down, a grimly mortal tale about rabbits. It fits the brief perfectly, don’t get me wrong, but I never want to actually listen to this song.

Richard Adams’ book (which I highly recommend) and subsequent cinematic adaptation scarred children due to its graphic depiction of death, so it’s only natural that a pivotal song on the soundtrack confronts this in a raw and blunt fashion. There are moments of poetic beauty in the song, namely the chorus: “Bright eyes, how can you close and fail”, but any song that refers to a ‘river of death’ needs a serious talking to.

The song was slow and dreary, so of course it went on to spend six weeks at number one in the UK and sell over a million copies.

You may have noticed that I’ve yet to mention the Manic Street Preachers on this entry about a Manic Street Preachers song, and that’s because as with most Manics covers, little exciting happens. Recorded live at the Astoria at the end of 1994, it was thrown on as a b-side to jukebox and cassette versions of A Design for Life.

The Manics’ gigs at the Astoria are infamous in the band’s history for being the final time that Richey Edwards played on stage, and for the group totalling their equipment in spectacular fashion. This wasn’t just a rock ‘n’ roll explosion, it was a human explosion. It may have felt thrilling watching it in the crowd, but the frenzy at which the band obliterated their guitars (and in Richey’s case, himself) was an image of a burn-out, not a triumph.

James Dean Bradfield took on Bright Eyes himself, and whilst he does little to alter the song, its sheer sparseness is remarkable. I wouldn’t call this ‘great’, but it’s a uneasy calm before the storm when you consider the intensity of their performances over the three days, and the self-destruction that would happen one night later.

Complicated Illusions

Release date: 10/9/2021 | Length: 3:23 | Release: The Ultra Vivid Lament

And in the rhythm of your voice
I find space to rejoice

This is as contemporary as this blog has ever been, functioning just a mere six months after this song has been released! Real on-the-pulse, cutting-edge stuff here.

As per much of the Manic Street Preachers’ late-era work, Complicated Illusions seems to be an ideological introspection into where they’ve come from, and where they are now: ‘Every battle I’ve ever fought, Has either been lost or bought’. On previous album Resistance Is Futile, there was an air of resignation, drawn out in a forlorn fashion. Here, assisted by a luscious major key, there’s a celebration and a solace to be found.

The big point to take home from Complicated Illusions is the chorus. It’s a joyous thing, and it’s been some time since a Manics chorus triggered such warmth and unfiltered happiness. Preceded by a Tolerate-esque shimmer and underlined by a Roxy Music style synth, it turns an average song into one of the highlights from The Ultra Vivid Lament.

Your Love Alone Is Not Enough

Release date: 23/4/2007 | Length: 3:55 | Release: Send Away the Tigers | EMS#34 | UK: #2

I could’ve shown you how to cry

Fans may turn their nose up at this being called a comeback single, but the truth is that this is one of the most vital singles in the Manic Street Preachers’ career. From a purely statistical point of view, that seems like an odd claim to make. It was their third #2 single in a row, but Your Love Alone Is Not Enough cut through to the mainstream in a way that The Love of Richard Nixon and Empty Souls didn’t. The early 00s were a patchy period for the band, with Know Your Enemy and Lifeblood underperforming. They needed a returning blast, and boy did they deliver.

The group had employed guest vocalists before (Traci Lords and Sophie Ellis-Bextor), but Your Love Alone ushered in a new wave of mercenaries performing with the band (album Journal for Plague Lovers being the only exception). Here they roped in Nina Persson of The Cardigans‘ fame, whose sweet vocals add a pop tone to a group who’ve never sounded so fun. Even Nicky Wire gets a line late in the song, arguably the best part of it.

The song was just about cool enough and certainly catchy enough to be a Radio 1 stalwart, and their legacy was large enough to rely on hardcore fans too. In fact, if it wasn’t for a slightly staggered release (the song was available for download a week earlier), this could’ve supplanted the Beyoncé-Shakira axis at the top of the charts.

There’s no messing about at the intro as the first words we hear are the title. The call and response between James and Nina just about falls on the right side of twee, and are unobjectionably infectious. Everything is so rich and sandwiched between Sean Moore’s barrelling drum rolls, the verses and choruses bounce around so much it’s difficult to tell which is which. The usual maxim is that the chorus is the catchy bit, but what if everything is a hook?

Cynics may have felt that Your Love Alone was too steeped in fun to be a true Manics classic, but the best bands can cover all ground. As joyous as this sounds, the song’s title is actually derived from a suicide note left by a friend: “Through all the pain, Your eyes stayed blue”.

The song is peppered with references to other classic songs. “Trade all your heroes in for ghosts” doffs a hat to Pink Floyd, “I could have seen for miles and miles” rips a page out of The Who‘s book, and “You stole the sun straight from my heart” checks the…umm…Manics. Furthermore, ‘baby blue’ and ‘exile’ may be a knowing nod to Badfinger and The Rolling Stones, bands who were no strangers to the Manics. As cool as these Easter eggs may be, they do give a slight artificiality to the song, almost as if every line has been written to ensure maximum satisfaction. It works, but at what cost?

Your Love Alone made the Manics a household name again, bagging them awards and adding a couple of extra years to their career. The criticisms of this song are ones that also dog the album Send Away the Tigers, but when you can write a tune this engrossing, you can turn a blind eye.

Picturesque

Release date: 18/04/2005 | Length: 3:54 | Release: God Save the Manics | EMS#204

I would like, I would prefer no choice

On an EP that’s largely been forgotten about, there lies a fascinating song. At the time, Picturesque was just a standout song from an obscure release. With what we know in hindsight, Picturesque was a bold move from a band testing the waters.

In 2009, the Manic Street Preachers released Journal for Plague Lovers, an album composed from lyrics left by Richey Edwards before his disappearance. This is of course well known, and not a secret. But during press for this album, the band had remarked that they had not used his lyrics since Everything Must Go, and considering the scarceness of God Save the Manics, that was perfectly believable. However the release of this later album showed that to be incorrect, as All Is Vanity and Doors Closing Slowly both share lyrics with this song.

Why was this not remarked upon? Having just come off the back of a limp reception to Lifeblood, perhaps the group felt that openly stating that they were using Richey’s lyrics was a cheap shot to rope disillusioned fans back in, or an admittance that they’d lost their Midas touch. Whatever the reason, Picturesque became a trial run for their later album, testing themselves more than anyone to see if they were capable of doing it justice.

The xylophone-esque keys are the shining light of the song, a unique touch for a band who typically relied on a straight-up piano for their melodic notes. Sure, in Lifeblood they’d dabbled heavily in complementary synths, but this sound on Picturesque is far less synthetic and heavy. On an otherwise unremarkable song that does feel slightly muddled lyrically, it really helps to drive the track along in a playful manner, capped off with a guitar solo that glides around like it’s on ice. To call this a curious footnote to a forgotten chapter of the Manics story isn’t quite accurate, as this year wasn’t noteworthy enough to warrant a chapter, but you get the point.

Motown Junk

Release date: 21/01/1991 | Length: 4:00 | Release: Single-only | EMS#17 | UK: #94

21 years of living and nothing means anything to me

As statements go, Motown Junk was full of it. Their second single (though first as a signed act) just about crept into the charts for a fortnight, but the impact it made was measured in more qualitative terms than sales. It was scything to the point of offense, and enthusiastic to the point of hilarity. They never made another song quite like this, but in 1991 it was the epitome of the Manic Street Preachers.

The title was a pot-shot against the soulless 80s imitators of Motown, a style avowed by James Dean Bradfield despite the lack in overlap between punk and soul. The Manics weren’t ones to suffer fools lightly, and nobody was off limits – not even The Beatles. ‘I laughed when Lennon got shot’, a potent line from a song that came out swinging. It’s now retired and regretted, but craved attention and controversy that burgeoning bands could only dream of. The influence of punk in the band’s music has mostly been in the periphery, but in their ethos it was a vital element.

Samples of Public Enemy and The Skids bookend the song, as if to point out to punters that they knew their stuff. The opening riff has a certain joy de vivre about it, bursting with a carefree enthusiasm that’s mirrored in Bradfield’s voice. He has a tremendous voice, that’s for sure, but here it makes way for a wavering shout that’s both confident and nervous at the same time. The ‘woohoos’ are the closest thing to cute in the Manics oeuvre, and the closing ‘junka junka junky’ are the words of someone filled with adrenaline and trying to channel every drop of it onto tape.

Compared to the wisdom that was put to paper in later songs, Motown Junk now looks a little naïve, but that misses the point. It was a reflection of their youthfulness and their vibrancy. There’s bewildering lines that sound biting but don’t warrant any further inspection (‘Communal tyranny a jail that bleeds our wrists’), but these are largely overshadowed by the gems (‘The only thing you gave me was the boredom I suffocate in’) and words uttered so fast they’re virtually incomprehensible (‘Stops your brain thinking for 168 seconds’).

The band may have entered the world with a manifesto that marked them out as saviours (or destroyers) of rock ‘n’ roll, but this single showed they were as fallible as any to the thrill of making music.

Epicentre

Release date: 19/03/2001 | Length: 6:26 | Release: Know Your Enemy | EMS#177

Still clinging to the umbilical chord

Epicentre is the microcosm of Know Your Enemy. It’s long, meanders all over the shop, and manages to confuse and bewilder the listeners. There’s no real structure to the song, and it ends with a sample of one of their own songs for no apparent reason. If Know Your Enemy is difficult to unpack, then Epicentre is impenetrable.

The opening slips from a punchy kick drum and piano combo to an irresistible melody before merging together for what is ostensibly the chorus. I call it the chorus because it’s repeated later on, and contains the name of the track, but when you account for the labyrinthine path the song takes, it’s really just a nominal chorus. I’d argue that a true chorus with the melody of the second section would ameliorate the song, but then would it just become another generic song on the final side of Know Your Enemy?

“We use ourselves like politicians” is a typical Manics line to start, but this whole verse is a disingenuous place to look for meaning. Scattered throughout the song are references to narcotics and fatigue, which may explain the zigzag state of the track. The protagonist is stunned, trapped, and suffocating – what’s the release?

Like a stunned fox, with memory loss

A sad numb creature, I worship the painkiller

In true Manics style too, the words are a square peg in a round hole. It takes Bradfield far longer to sing “So delete the feeling” than you’d expect from anyone else. It’s awkward to truly grab onto Epicentre because of how shapeshifting it is. And then there’s the end, fading out with a loop of b-side Masking Tape: “Happy black days here’s the summer”. Why? The origin of this sample would not be made clear until Let Robeson Song was released six months later, and even still on that song it’s utterly incongruous.

Epicentre is a bold song that suffers from its very purpose. The band aren’t known for being musically experimental, so it makes any motive unclear. And on an album dripping in exhaustion, any reward fails to feel worthy.

Between the Clock and the Bed

Release date: 07/07/2014 | Length: 3:35 | Release: Futurology | EMS#138

Hatred and failure go perfectly together
Like the quick and the sand beautiful and damned

Tucked away on side 2 of Futurology is a song that passed me by on first listen. And to confess, most subsequent listens too. But once it’s unlocked, Between the Clock and the Bed is here to stay. The headline is that it’s a creative Manic Street Preachers song elevated to new heights thanks to the inimitable Green Gartside of Scritti Politti fame.

On the face of it, the Manics and Scritti Politti are odd bedfellows. The Leeds band (albeit fronted by a Cardiff native) had just about faded away by the time the Blackwood rockers blitzed onto the scene, and when you look at the riotous acts that the Manics waxed lyrical about in the press (The Clash, Guns N’ Roses), it’s difficult to see where a new-wave, sophisti-pop band fits into the equation. But once the Manics had stopped with their outrageous quotes and performative gestures, they could be themselves, and by 2014 they were free to speak openly about their inspirations that may have harmed their image in the early days.

It’s a fact that James Dean Bradfield in particular had masses of respect for the new wave bands, and whilst this isn’t the most prominent song on the album to reflect this, the guest vocalist must have been a dream for the band. In fact, Scritti Politti even supported the band on tour during this period.

There’s so much to dissect in this song. Sean Moore’s heavily-affected drums wash all over the song like a stilted tide, almost like the song is being played in slow-motion as Gartside and Bradfield reminisce. The song shares its name with an Edvard Munch painting (‘Self-Portrait. Between the Clock and the Bed’, seen above), where the artist stands discontent and aged in his setting. The Manics have frequently questioned their existence in their later years, and Nicky Wire may see himself stuck between time and success.

Unexpectedly, the final verse of the song shifts up in key as Bradfield and Gartside take turns to deliver the coda. The guest vocalist’s nasally tone is just as powerful as Bradfield’s booming production, but adds a veneer of luxury to it all. His lines are done a cappella, save from some dramatic background harmonies. Elegant, sophisticated, and all done in three minutes thirty.

Let’s Go to War

Release date: 07/07/2014 | Length: 2:58 | Release: Futurology | EMS#83

To feel some pureness and some pain
We need to go to war again

It’s no Miss Europa Disco Dancer, but Let’s Go to War is groovy as heck. If it wasn’t for the song’s content, this would absolutely be the soundtrack to an 80s, bourgeois, French discothèque. Debuted on their early 2014 tour, Let’s Go to War sounded a little limp when listened via shaky, fan-made videos, but upon its full release, it became a pivotal Futurology track.

Whereas some later-era Manics tunes have suffered in their broad vagueness, Let’s Go to War relishes in its ambiguity. One could see it as a scythe on the past century of European hostility, as powers have turned to conflict and rage in order to satisfy their egos. But the band themselves have compared to the song to previous singles You Love Us and The Masses Against the Classes, which points to the war being one of a class variety.

The 30-Year War showed that the Manics still had fire in their belly, and this stomping, militaristic battle was waged further, albeit in a less direct way. There’s no reference points or esoteric events to guide oneself through the war, just a battle cry and a sense of urgency. James Dean Bradfield’s is joined by fellow Welshfolk Cate Le Bon, Gavin Fitzjohn, and H. Hawkline as he chants the song’s title, sounding frighteningly cult-like.