Tuesday, March 3, 2015

'European skies, European desires'

Manic Street Preachers - 'Futurology' (2014)

"I am the sturm und drang / I am the schadenfreude"

In unprecedented haste for a band of its age, the twelfth studio album from Manic Street Preachers was released around six months after its companion, Rewind the Film. Both albums complement one another, and yet are intended to be opposites, Rewind the introspective middle-aged Holy Bible, while Futurology, while not exactly future-looking, is an optimistic, outward-looking work. Its predecessor is no slouch, but fed on Krautrock, and presenting electronic soundscapes and a peculiarly Welsh view of modern European history, the Manics' latest album is one of their strongest and most complete.

"Working class skeletons / lie scattered in museums" 

Like Rewind the Film, Futurology was recorded at Hansa by the Wall, in Berlin. The British artist or group retreating to Berlin for reinvigouration and reinvention has past form, of course: Bowie (Low and "Heroes") and U2 (Achtung Baby) both did it, and while Manics eschewed Eno and parted with Visconti five albums previously, there is a sense of hat-doffing to the former. But this isn't pastiche as Achtung Baby pretended towards (and Zooropa achieved) but a logical transition. Doubled with Rewind the Film, its studio companion, the two albums converse and share ideas, sounds and influences.

Futurology is a confident album - still equipped with the doubts of Rewind, but seated in a continental context, and an historical one. Its Europe is a Europe of ghosts both living and dead: - 'The Next Jet to leave Moscow's' "old jaded Commie walking in Red Square", while bonus track 'The Last Time I Saw Paris' has its protagonist wander the French capital looking for 'the boxer' (Sartre) and 'the goalkeeper' (Camus), Grieg's 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' is sampled in 'Let's Go To War', Munch's painting in 'Between the Clock and the Bed', and more personally, the shimmering 'Divine Youth' sparks from Wire's catching an image of himself and Richey Edwards in their younger heyday on a bootleg t-shirt.

"To understand your country you must first understand yourself"

So while U2's European experience is largely as travellers and impressioned observers, Manics draw on European political history, Welsh history as European history ('Dreaming a City (Hugheskova)' and 'The View from Stowe Hill'), and their own politics to create part-essay, part travelogue. Far from the cut-up soundbite approach of the Richey era, there are easier entry points in thee songs, and what seems to be an attempt to demystify the lyrics, maybe Wire's past-affirmed "attempt at mass communication." And so alongside the possible survivor-guilt of 'Walk Me to the Bridge' and eflection of 'Between the Clock', there are songs about Wire's dwindling Socialist values ('Moscow') and a self-referencing of the band's more notorious history: "so you played in Cuba did you like it brother? / I bet you felt proud, you silly little f*cker."

My overriding impression of this album however is one of generosity. There are songs loosely about the band and its primary lyricist, but these seem small ingredients alongside the wealth of ideas, the inclusion of fellow Welsh vocalists Georgia Ruth and Green Gartside (duets being another element shared with Futurology), and the impressive soundscape from Bradfield and Moore - hinted at in the previous album's closer, but fully formed here. It echoes not only the Krautrock of Can, Neu and Kraftwerk ('Black Square', to my ears, and also 'Misguided Missile'), but more domestic influences - PiL, Simple Minds, a dash of The Skids. I don't think manics have ever not worn their influences on their sleeves, but here the influences seem broader and more accommodating. And I'm very happy to have it in my collection.

Cover story: It's allegedly a good sign because the band logo and lettering has the reversed letters back! fans would therefore expect a call-back to similarly-typed albums The Holy Bible, Send Away the Tigers and Journal for Plague Lovers, and, perhaps third album excepted, it's not a bad comparison. The photo: a blonde fraulein standing on a block of ice in brittle, beautiful midwinter sunlight. Gorgeous. And futurist Berlin architecture forms the backdrop to the band portraits inside. Job done.

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