This is what they were born to do. This is what they have to do...
“[I]In the beginning, when we were winning, when our smiles were genuine[/I]…”
Oh how they wish they didn’t care. it would be so much easier for the Manic Street Preachers if they could finally let their heads triumph over their hearts. If they could admit defeat, abandon this rock’n’roll dream to the next useless generation, admit that their hearts weren’t genuine, that this was all the extended situationist prank their critics wanted it to be, and they never were ‘4 Real’.
But that’s when we really should be told, ‘This is the end’. Instead, this band are driven on by that very contradiction as it nags away at their souls. They’ve always professed apathy and nihilism despite themselves, and they’ve always professed to care passionately. And both statements are true.
Now the battle is no longer for our hearts and minds, but between their own. Their hearts can’t help wanting to change the world, but their heads can’t help resigning themselves to more depressing reality. The two feed and fight each other.
Never more so than on ‘If You Tolerate This…’, wherein Nicky debates with himself whether he could, would, or should ever live up to practising the heroism and noble ethics that he preaches. If what we see now is the mature Manics, then their maturity is defined by their digging beneath their own rhetoric and idealism, and letting the reality of their own natural pessimism in.
We see all this played out before us tonight. James saunters onstage, mumbles, “Gvnnzzsngcld’Australia’,” and clocks on for the first night back at work. The kids jump up and down, he plays the guitar solo, strikes the odd pose. Piece of piss. Even a crowd-surfing wheelchair (I kid you not) doesn’t inspire him beyond an apparently functional performance. Likewise, Nicky ends up sitting down towards the end of the newly ironic sounding ‘Faster’.
‘If You Tolerate This…’ is the second song, presumably to get any uncomfortable anticipation out of the way. Who’s arsed, anyway? It’s not as if it matters – the song has become an Oasis-style sing-along already in the public domain, and the community choir is as moving a vocal track as any.
But it can’t last. For all they might try to rationalise it, they can’t cool the fire inside. The first flickerings of passion come with the sublime instant epic, ‘The Everlasting’. This is the Manics with hearts more squarely on sleeves than ever, evoking simple emotions and basic sentiments without ever reducing themselves to platitudes or losing an ounce of profundity. Following that with ‘Kevin Carter’ and ‘La Tristesse Durera’, you can feel the switch going on in James’ voice as it suddenly regains that rasp and yearn we’ve all been missing.
That’s when the Manics really hit you in the gut like you know they can, when you remember this is one of the great rock’n’roll voices, with the visceral resonance of Kurt Cobain or Chuck D.
If that’s an ambition realised, then it’s representative of what’s always been so central and unique to the Manics – this is a band who became great because they wanted it so badly. Or rather, some bands want to succeed, but the Manic Street Preachers had to succeed.
That drive and determination, for this observer at any rate, has always been personified by James Dean Bradfield – his guitar-playing, that voice, his steely eye, his musicality, and a rock’n’roll feeling in his blood.
There’s more to it than that, though. It’s a triumph not only of the will but of a vision. Every On band talks about ‘ambition’ and thinks it means a rented string section. But the Manics always knew what a rock’n’roll band could be, in their wildest dreams if not in reality. They always admitted they were bound to fail, but if so they’ve succeeded in being the greatest failures pop music has ever known.
Sure, they couldn’t play. They couldn’t sell 20million albums then split up. They couldn’t be everything Richey or their critics or their fans wanted and needed. But in trying and failing they achieved Nicky Wire’s admittedly modest aim of being the most important band of the ’90s. Not necessarily in influence or in reflecting or moulding their times, but for refusing to go gently into that good night, to paraphrase another Welsh poet. For raging harder than anyone against the dying of humanity’s light in our culture, and against the creeping malaise of mediocrity, homogeneity, consensus and conformity. For believing in the power of music and of ethics when all around are saying these went out with ‘uneconomic pits’, vinyl records and old romantics.
All of which brings us back to how they can’t stop themselves telling their truth, be it from the heart or the head. So it proves more and more tonight as James and Nicky can no longer resist the Townshend leaps, Chuck Berry twirls and seething emotional catharsis.
OK, so ‘Tsunami’ and ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’ have choruses that are near enough stadium rock. But that’s the leap of faith the Manics have always demanded. Like all great rock’n’roll bands, they know it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it. And they do it with such extraordinary intelligence, righteous fire and soulful resonance that it’s on a different planet from, say, Bon Jovi.
After the subtler pleasures of James’ acoustic set, the ragged rage of ‘Yes’ and the searing melancholy of ‘Nobody Loves You’ conspire to show you that the Manic heart is beating as loudly as ever, and when they end with an impossibly anthemic ‘A Design For Life’, our love is unequivocal once more.
But it’s ‘You Love Us’ that tells us the Manics are still winning their own personal battle. It rips through the hall just like it did seven years ago, like every victory you ever dreamed of, every revenge you ever wanted, every freedom you ever demanded. A roar of catharsis, vindication and life-affirming power.
This is what they were born to do. This is what they have to do. This is what we need them to do. They know it, deep down, and they’re not about to forget it.
Most importantly, for all their cynical heads might claim otherwise, they can’t deny they still love it and we still love them. Their smiles, one suspects, are genuine.