Eclectic of style. Political in content. Ah... the Manics return
After the string of Brit awards, the Number One anthems, the lighters waving in the air, you can see why Manic Street Preachers feel the need to prove they’re still red in tooth, claw and ideology. Back in the days when they were promising to split up as soon as they had released an album, they had to struggle for acceptance as a band of substance and seriousness: now, weighted down with grizzled gravitas, ‘Know Your Enemy’ sees them scrabbling for some of that early freedom, catapulting themselves back to a time when their minds could only just keep pace with their lipsticked mouths and they had all the establishment credentials of a red light district. It’s a dangerous mission, returning to the scene of your earliest triumphs is a textbook example of the fool’s errand.
But then, the Manics have hardly developed into an impeccably slick operation over the years. For all their contradictions, the biggest clash has always been between theory and practice. Forget Martin Sheen in [I]The West Wing [/I] – read an interview with Nicky Wire and he’s the in-dreams PM, his recent railing against “second-hand culture” enough to have you organising jumble-sale fund-raisers. The moment they translate their righteous invective into song, however, it’s with the fluency of a Russian translating Greek into Hebrew, and nothing has changed here. Not only is there a song called ‘My Guernica’ but it feels obliged to mention J Alfred Prufrock. The Castro-pleasing ‘Baby Elian’ scans like a chainsaw massacre, while the leap-before-you-look ‘Freedom Of Speech Won’t Feed My Children’ is as ungainly as someone dropping an armful of textbooks down library stairs. Ironic, too, that the earnest lilt of ‘The Year Of Purification’ and ‘Let Robeson Sing’ sound remarkably like REM. Distinctly counter-revolutionary.
Luckily, if they’ve maintained their youthful clumsiness, they’ve also preserved some early flammability in the the excellent ‘Intravenous Agnostic’, which despite wearing the lyrical equivalent of an ‘I’m With Stupid’ T-shirt, offers plausible old-school thrills. The severe socialistic rhetoric doesn’t stop them decadently changing styles like Shirley Bassey changes costume: feathery Beach Boys shimmer (‘So Why So Sad’); Velvet Underground black (the fade-out of ‘My Guernica’). An experiment in capturing their Blackwood bedroom love of music – the stilted funk of ‘Miss Europa Disco Dancer’ is like watching [I]Generation Game [/I]contestants trying to salsa – never leave you doubting their conviction. Given their retreat into sport and housework, it’s both a relief and surprise that they still want to make the effort.
“Can anyone make a difference any more/Can anyone write a protest song?” asks James on ‘Let Robeson Sing’. ‘Know Your Enemy’ might be riddled with more faults than California, but in an increasingly unambitious world, it allows you to answer with a cautious “yes”. Far from divine, but on the side of the angels.