Manic Street Preachers: ‘One last shot at mass communication’

The Manic Street Preachers.

Manic Street Preachers
Postcards From a Young Man (Sony, 2010)

From its opening strains, the Manic Street Preachers’ 10th and latest 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 the successful 1998 follow-up This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, and the darker, more political and introspective music of the 1994 album 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 (presumed dead) in 1995. On Journal, the Manics used the last of Edwards’ frequently disturbing lyrics and imagery, but the band’s major commercial success has come largely off the back of the more anthemic music that 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 includes the title track, "Postcards from a Young Man", as well a choir-backed duet with Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch, “Some Kind of Nothingness”.

The 10th album follows 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 rage and intelligence that has 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, more political and cultural critique than a university bookshop, and 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. 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 day.”

Later in the album, lyricist and bassist Nicky Wire poses the awkward and rather challenging question: “Do I have the courage of the books I’ve read?”

But Postcards is not simply an album built on pathos, clever songs and strings. The songs are 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 and buried in debt”.

In the second half of the album, 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 high point is “Golden Platitudes”. The song 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 example 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 lead to pointless lives/ It’s breaking up our bones it’s breaking up our minds.”

In a hat-tip to 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: “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 suggest 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 the Manics’ best work — both the individual songs, and as an album — and is redolent at times of a more mature version of the band’s chaotic first album Generation Terrorists. It steadfastly refuses to underestimate 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 20 years, the Manic Street Preachers have withstood accusations that they have 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, the 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 first place on the British 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. If you’re not a Manics fan yet, you’re missing out.

Below: “I will not give up and I will not give in!” The Manic Street Preachers perform “Postcards From a Young Man” on British TV show Later...with Jools Holland.