Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Manic Street Preachers: "One last shot at mass communication"

Manic Street Preachers - Postcards from a Young Man (Sony, 2010) 
From its opening strains, the Manic Street Preachers’ latest – and tenth – album, Postcards From A Young Man, is clearly the successor not only to 2007’s Send Away The Tigers, but also to their critically acclaimed 1996 success Everything Must Go.

It seems sometimes obligatory (although perhaps not useful) to divide the Manics’ work into the chart-friendly “pop” of Everything Must Go and of their successful 1998 follow-up This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, and the darker, more political and introspective music of 1994’s The Holy Bible and 2009’s Journal for Plague Lovers.

Certainly there is a difference – not least the darker lyrics of former guitarist Richey Edwards, who disappeared, now presumed dead, in 1995. While Journal saw the Manics use up the last of Richey’s frequently disturbing lyrics and imagery, the band’s major commercial success has come largely off the back of the more anthemic music which characterised Everything.

Postcards is cut largely from that lighter cloth – it is the Dr Jekyll to Journal’s Mr Hyde.
The album opens with the roaring string crescendos of "(It’s not War) Just the End of Love" and the title-track, "Postcards from a Young Man", followed by a glorious choir-backed duet with Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch, "Some Kind of Nothingness".

As a tenth album, coming after more than two decades of tribulation and glamour, of rage and disillusionment, some might have expected Postcards to sound at times tired and dispirited. On the contrary, even the saddest songs on the album are packed full of the same righteous anger and intelligence that have sustained the Manics – and their fans – for all this time.

This is in fact the Manics at their best – anthemic pop songs with dark moments and more political and cultural critique than a university bookshop, performing a subtle unwinding of the chains of alienation that keep us alone and cold.

An album of middle-age and defeat it is not, and the Manics’ stubborn dedication to left-wing political and social criticism still rings out throughout the songs. The lyrics still scream eloquently into the void, remonstrating against the cultural wasteland of the modern capitalist world – a world “so sad and lonely and so derelict” – but they are also self-questioning and searching.

The opening lines of the title-track capture this balance succinctly: “I don’t believe the absolutes 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”.

Later in the album, lyricist and bassist Nicky Wire reiterates the self-questioning, posing the awkward and rather challenging question: “do I have the courage of the books I’ve read?”

Postcards is not simply an album built on pathos, clever songs and strings, however, with songs chock-full of familiar-sounding Manics lyrics: “Yes I worship at the altar/ I am a happy consumer”, “My work will set me free and fulfills my dreams”, and “Welcome to the new slave trade/ Drained of delusion & buried in debt”.

The second half of the album sees a sharp rise in tempo and a return to a sharper rock version of the Manics, with metal riffs and solos, and more explicit political critique.

One important high-point is "Golden Platitudes", which takes majestic aim at the Blairite abandonment of “Old Labour” values, levelling the blunt accusation, "The liberal left destroyed/ Every bit of my youth".

Another is "All We Make Is Entertainment". A rocking redux of the Manics’ classic attack on the music industry and media, "You Love Us", it takes on the sale of Cadbury to Kraft, the bail-out of the British banks, and laments the decline of both British manufacturing and pop music.

The song concludes with the barbed lyrics: “The insides of our nation have been exposed/ It only confirms what we already know/ Pointless jobs just lead to pointless lives/ It’s breaking up our bones; it’s breaking up our minds”.

In a hat-tip to their early influences, Guns’n Roses’ original bassist Duff McKagan joins the socialist Welsh rockers to blast out "A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun", a JG Ballard-referencing attack on the alienating nature of the internet, where “we’ve all become our personal gods/ we’ve all become so sad and lost”.

The closing song – "Don’t Be Evil" – is classic Manics as well, a high-tempo vitriolic attack on the hypocrisy of the internet empire that is Google, twisting the internet company’s slogan back on itself:

“As corporate as the suits you don’t wear/ As stupid as the jeans you tear/ As evil as the pretence you care/ God save us all from Satan’s stare/ Oh, don’t be evil, just be corporate/ Fool the world with your own importance”.

"Don’t Be Evil", "Billion Balconies" and "All We Make Is Entertainment" also allude to a theme running through Postcards – a self-deprecating critique of the ultimately depersonalising nature of modern communication technologies – from social networking to Youtube, email and even the internet itself.

The ‘postcards’ of the album’s title suggests an older, more tangible, and arguably more genuine, form of human interaction, when it took time and effort to communicate, and when words meant something more than cheap entertainment or narcissistic self-promotion.

Postcards also stands as a poetic masterpiece alongside some of their best work – both the individual songs, and as an album – and is redolent at times of a more mature version of their chaotic first album Generation Terrorists, and steadfastly refuses to underestimated its listeners’ intelligence.

From the opening lyrics to the closing riffs, however, I couldn’t help but recall the famous Dylan Thomas lyric “rage, rage against the dying of the light”.

For twenty years, the Manic Street Preachers have withstood accusations that they had sold out, were intellectually false, or were faltering in their resolve. As if it were still necessary after all this time, singer James Dean Bradfield echoes Thomas’ lyrics in the closing refrain of the title track, half-snarling, half-yelling, their answer:

“I won’t betray your confidence/ I won’t pretend my way was lost/ This world will not impose it’s will/ I will not give up and I will not give in!/ This world will not impose it’s will!/ I will not give up and I will not give in!”

If Postcards is indeed, as the band has described it, “one last shot at mass communication”, then it has succeeded – the album was prevented from storming #1 place on the UK charts only by the unfortunate existence of Phil Collins.

Let the doubters doubt – in Postcards from a Young Man, the Manics have delivered a grandiose and intelligent pop album that puts the rest of the chart-topping mediocrity to shame.

The Manics also remain one of the best bands I’ve ever seen playing live, and one of the best - if not *the* best - bands of the past two decades. If you’re not a Manics fan yet, you’re missing out on something special.

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