An album about midlife resignation may not sound like the best spark to relight creative fires, but the Manics’ return is an unlikely victory even by their standards. After 2004’s potential career-killer Lifeblood, their last three albums proved they could still draw on a patented friction between brazen populism and brittle introspection. But their 11th is fresher still, its mostly acoustic intimacies offering searing, sublime dispatches from a stand-off – “in between acceptance and rage” – with middle age.
“Show Me the Wonder” is a brassy belter, but its lyrics evince encroaching despair. With Lucy Rose and Richard Hawley’s tender vocals cushioning wounded sentiments, “This Sullen Welsh Heart” laments fading energies and “Rewind the Film” looks back in wistfulness. Cherished Manics history haunts it: “Anthem for a Lost Cause” downsizes “A Design for Life” for non-anthemic times and “As Holy as the Soil” aches for lost comrade Richey Edwards.
Some bands answer nostalgia’s call by straining to repeat past highs. The Manics do something smarter, flexing core strengths anew in the spaces opened by reflection. On the title track, James Dean Bradfield’s battle cry deposes Hawley’s croon with a startling spike in passion. Drummer Sean Moore’s “God Only Knows”-ish trumpet soothes “Builder of Routines”. Nicky Wire’s atypically spare lyrics lend the words breathing room within a tight, album-length arc, the opener’s exhausted plea (“time to surrender”) contrasts with revitalised political fire on the closing “30-Year War”. Ageing is a war they can’t win, but by facing it head-on, the Manics have found the spur to move forwards.