Album Review: Manic Street Preachers - 'Postcards From A Young Man' (Columbia)
Their tenth album is poignant and joyful - if occasionally cheesy
When God met with his people to blue-sky ideas for a Bible follow-up, they must have been bricking it. Inform vengeful Yahweh the Manics had beaten him to it? Yeah mate, after you. But beat him they had, as 2008’s ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’‚ saw the Welsh firebrands rattle off the triumphant sequel to their own personal ‘Holy Bible’. And if that record knew the value of ringing in the new when the old stone tablets start weighing heavy round the neck, it’s because they’d been here before.
Back in 1995 the Manics’ continued existence was in doubt; its protagonists left devastated at the disappearance of their talisman Richey Edwards. ‘The Holy Bible‚ had been a brilliant, shocking study in 20th-century madness and mental illness, but the toll was too much to bear. Something had to give, and they rallied beautifully with ‘Everything Must Go’, pulling the plug on ‘THB’s rancid bathwater of introspection and delivering a seismic stadium suite that paid dignified tribute to their absent friend.
Unfortunately the years that followed offered a stale procession of jaded MOR, half-arsed returns to punk form‚ and a sense of slipping identity. There were signs of life on 2007’s ‘Send Away The Tigers’, then from the embers, a fire – drawing inspiration from Edwards’ final folder of lyrics, ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ was the raw comeback re-establishing the band as media darlings a decade after ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ put them on the path to adult-oriented tedium.
Newly galvanised, the Manics now find themselves looking to fan the flames of revival away from Edwards‚ influence, and ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ throws an ‘Everything Must Go’-shaped kitchen sink at the problem. Abetted by Dave Eringa’s period production job, it’s a mid-90s flavoured set that sings with rediscovered conviction. James Dean Bradfield summons great tidal swells of melodrama with his guitar. Strings ride in like magic carpets. And Sean Moore’s pugilistic drumming will give you cauliflower ear if you crank it up.
It’s also cheesier than Red Hot Chili Peppers’ sock drawer, but the Manics were always meant to transcend the vagaries of boring good taste. No doubt that seems quaint when you can download your aesthetic wholesale as an iPhone app nowadays but, dude, at least it’s an ethos.
So, never mind that the vocal line on opener ‘(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love’ sounds a bit like ‘Bad Day’ by Daniel Powter. Just watch ’em make it fly with tumbling riffs and soaring Motown strings akin to the best of ‘Everything Must Go’.
The punch-drunk R&B of the title track monsters you with sheer gut-busting volume, Nicky Wire’s embattled lyric chasing away the lure of pragmatism that comes with age: “I don’t believe the absolute anymore/I’m quite prepared to admit I was wrong/This life it sucks your principles away/You have to fight against it every single day”. ‘Hazelton Avenue’ comes on like the upbeat riposte to ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ (“I don’t need a wilderness to feel solitary”) but the tune is more a riff-tastic take on Lenny Kravitz‚s ‘It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over’. Stupidly, it works.
The Stooges-esque ‘Auto-Intoxication’ offers a nicely wrought moment of angst, but it’s ‘Golden Platitudes’ that gives ‘Postcards…’‚ its Olympian moment. A stately tear-jerker lamenting the crimes of the New Labour regime, its stellar gospel accompaniment makes Spiritualized sound like a smackhead with a tin whistle: “Where did it all go wrong, where did the feeling go?/Why colonise the moon, when every different kind of desperation exists?”
Wire-the-class-warrior can also be found seething on ‘All We Make Is Entertainment’, which mourns the decline of the manufacturing industry over a vainglorious, Springsteenian hook: “Oh this country is but an empty shell/A clearing house for heaven, a clearing house for hell”. ‘A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun’ reimagines modern media-saturation culture’s “ecstasy of the eye” as Ballardian nightmare.
This being the Manics there are some high-profile clunkers, ‘The Descent (Pages 1 & 2)”s sub-Oasis drivel being a prime suspect. Likewise the plumber’s-crack plod of Ian McCulloch collab ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’ with its less helpful use of a gospel choir.
The weak points are scanty, though, and mostly this is a fighting-strength album. Nicky vies manfully with vocal duties on ‘The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever’, which does ‘Exile’-era Stones by way of – yes – Belle & Sebastian. And ‘Don’t Be Evil’ betrays its Television influence in a sputtering groove that erupts in a wonky firework of a solo.
Among ‘Postcards From A Young Man”s several achievements is that it makes the ’90s sound like they weren’t an appalling place to be. It was never likely to best ‘Everything Must Go”s bravura passion play, but then again, the Manics’ 10th offensive is a more playful beast than that – poignant, joyful and above all really, really loud.
‘Postcards…’ doesn’t so much run with the ball as kick that shit right out the stadium. Alex Denney
Download: ‘Golden Platitudes’, ‘All We Make Is Entertainment’, ‘(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love’.