There’s a cyclical nature to the way the Manic Street Preachers make their albums, the musical equivalent of two steps forward, one step back, as they alternate between innovation, expansion and consolidation. Resistance Is Futile finds the band in consolidation mode, harking back to their triumphant ‘96 album Everything Must Go, whilst incorporating newer sonic elements added to their palette on the last two records. It is the band’s 13th studio album, which is incredible really when you consider their history. From their bold early claims of splitting after going platinum with their first album, to the disappearance of firebrand lyricist Richey Edwards and the attendant mental health problems which wore heavily on the remaining band members. However, if they were ever really going to split I would have thought the commercial (and arguably creative) slump that followed their triumphant late-90s albums might have provided an opportunity to fade quietly from view.
There’s always been a tenacity to the band, though, clinging on through thick and thin. They’ve been a united force since their shared childhoods, approaching the music business with a workmanlike consistency owed to their background as working class lads from the small Welsh town of Blackwood. The last two records the band released came as a pair, Rewind The Film and Futurology. Recorded at the same time and released less than a year apart, they saw the band exploring new territory, with the former making a decent stab at a more mellow, acoustic style and the latter combining a more familiar post-punk approach with retro electro elements, also new to the band. Now, with Resistance Is Futile, we find both the acoustic guitar and a liberal smattering of electronics are firmly on the menu. Incorporating the new at the same time as producing a focussed, melodic, power pop album, with its feet firmly planted in the stadium filling sounds of their most commercially successful works. It’s no surprise that their UK tour this spring only visits arenas.
The band do sound vital in many respects on this album, James Dean Bradfield’s vocals soar, hitting the high notes effortlessly, matched by a renewed skill for coming up with guitar hooks as melodic counterpoints, often paired here with thick, glossy synth sounds. Nicky Wire shows off some great bass playing (‘Hold Me Like A Heaven’ being a fine example), and can even boast a guitar solo for the latest single, ‘Liverpool Revisited’. As someone who’s been a Manics fan since I first started getting into music in my mid-teens, this record ticks a lot of boxes. The first single, ‘International Blue’, has a power and immediacy that the band have sometimes lacked in their latter years. However, overall Resistance Is Futile, leaves me strangely underwhelmed. Perhaps it’s that title: Resistance Is Futile seems somewhat a misnomer when the album’s centre-piece, ‘Liverpool Revisited’, is a song about Liverpool and those who fought for justice for the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy. It seems to say that resistance is not, in fact, futile, but that defiance can be its own reward – a source of ‘dignity and pride’, and perhaps even justice, in the apology and exposure of the truth that was eventually won for the 96.
I suppose I’m saying that, with a title like Resistance Is Futile, from Britain’s premier political pop-rockers, you’d expect the album to tackle head on the not inconsiderable problems of today. The Manics, however, have delivered an album full of punchy songs, sounding like they’re genuinely having a blast in the studio, but whose lyrical concerns lay mostly in the nostalgia-soaked past. ‘International Blue’ pays homage to long-dead painter Yves Klein. ‘Dylan and Caitlin’, a duet with a stunning guest vocal from The Anchoress (Catherine Anne Davies), references the alcoholism of Dylan Thomas and his long-suffering wife Caitlin, whilst sounding a touch too reminiscent of Elton John and Kiki Dee’s ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’. ‘Vivian’ is about American photographer Vivian Maier, whose work belongs mainly to the 20th century. Bradfield wrote the lyrics for ‘Distant Colours’, which gets close to talking about a contemporary issue, taking probable inspiration from the division wrought by Brexit. As he sings of disillusionment with left wing politics, he does so in such denial of the present you want to shout an emphatic ‘yes’ at him when he sings: “Are we living in the past?” in the chorus. The closest they come to talking about today is on ‘Broken Algorithms’, which curiously sounds most like their Generation Terrorists hard rock origins.
The message of ‘Broken Algorithms’ is a familiarly confusing one, of disassociation in the face of a barrage of fake news and opinions presented as facts, in this era of digital and social media. Strangely, though, it feels like Wire is more concerned with self-preservation than resistance in this piece – and maybe that’s what the album title is truly driving at. It’s all summed up with the opening lines of ‘People Give In’: “People get tired, people get old”. As vital as they sound at points on this album the message I get is that, in response to the intangibility of the current political Zeitgeist, the Manics are retreating into a melancholic museum of the past. The samurai depicted in the artwork, whose katana blades were once the pinnacle of military technology, found their entire existence became obsolete when Japan was forced out of feudalism and firearms arrived in the country. Maybe this is how the Manics see themselves now: old warriors whose battlefields are behind them. Codified, ritualistic survivors from another era still preaching to the converted. Resistance Is Futile is truly a strong record, that will stand up well alongside the best of their back catalogue, but if you’re looking for anger, social commentary and, well, resistance, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.