Manic Street Preachers - Postcards From A Young Man review
So it's time to take a first listen to the new Manic Street Preachers album Postcards From A Young Man - their 10th studio set. It's been widely reported that James Dean Bradfield has declared it to be their "last attempt at mass communication". I take this to mean that like on their 2007 return to form Send Away The Tigers, they'll be going overtly for a radio presence to ease their way back into the nation's brains.
The Manics have always been dab hands at constructing radio-friendly singles; the songwriting duo of Bradfield and Sean Moore creating epic hooks, tethering the lyrics of Richey Edwards or Nicky Wire. At their very best, they've subverted the charts, with socially- and politically-charged missives allied to the very poppest of pop melodies.
So let's see what's what here then.
(It's Not War) Just The End Of Love
As previously discussed on this blog, this single has a great hook, a graceful power and a superb video featuring Michael Sheen and Anna Friel. It's superb and no doubt you've heard it already. It's out today (Monday 13 September).
Postcards From A Young Man
The title track has an upbeat, uplifting ambience that's again laden with strings. Bradfield pushes his voice, providing a growly counterpoint to the sweeping grandeur of the chorus. It benefits from a second - and third - listen to get that melody to work its way into my head. "I will not give up and I will not give in" shouts Bradfield - and that fire in his voice is good to hear. A small gripe would be the strange multi-layed choral ending with Bradfield joined by a gospel choir. To me, gospel choirs belong in gospel churches or on 1980s Genesis live tours.
Some Kind Of Nothingness
This song features the monotonous tones of the instantly-recognisable Ian McCulloch and the return of the gospel singers low down in the mix. Bradfield and McCulloch trade lines that build to a crescendo of strings and backing vocals. But it all seems a bit aimless, lacking a distinct focal point. On listening back to the whole album, I think it's the weakest track here.
The Descent (Pages 1 & 2)
Lacking the overt sheen of the previous two tracks, The Descent sounds a lot more like conventional latter-day Manic Street Preachers, with a mid-tempo 4/4 beat that breaks down into a gleefully simplistic middle-eight with wobbly guitar lines being coaxed out of James' guitar. It then returns to a final chorus, rhyming 'descent', 'defence', 'sense' and 'left' on each of Sean Moore's thumping fourth beats.
This song kicks off with a guitar sound most closely akin to Sleepflower, the opener of Gold Against The Soul, but instead of a brutally tuneful punch to the guts, Hazelton Avenue is a totally straight-ahead, pop song that has a big Radio 2 sign draped across its shiny-suited shoulders. The strings kick in 15 seconds in and it has a strange atmosphere, with a near-lullaby feeling. It's certainly one of their very safest, least combative songs ever.
Promisingly-titled, this song starts with a tension-building bit of acoustic guitar before a fuzzy guitar and Bradfield's voice comes in, with a robotic, artificial style. It's mod-ish. Then we get a lengthy Pink Floyd-y breakdown into a chorus that returns to familiar territory - Bradfield delivers the lines with a passion and a snarling fervour. It's the song that so far most recalls the best bits of the years when they wanted to play enormodomes but lacked the sales to do so. It has a hunger.
Introduced by a piano and a sotto voce vocal from Bradfield, this polite songs starts quiet and builds up and up... The gospel choir is back to add their capacious lungs to this song. "Oh, what a Shangri La/Oh, what a shell we are/Oh, what mess we've made/What happened to those days?/When everything seemed possible," sings Bradfield. It's contemplative, it's epic, it's powerful. Then the choir sing "Lalalalala" and he appears to have answered his own question: "Where did it all go wrong?"
I Think I've Found It
"I think I've found it/And I think I love it," sings Bradfield and I realise that they - really - have approached the recording of this album in the frame of mind of contented middle age, with barely a vestige of the ancient fire that many fell in love with. There's a really nice melodic line that is second only to that of It's Not War... in its ability to stick around. It's a light, airy song that nevertheless has one of those classic Manics choruses that has Bradfield singing a melodic line that - whisper it - reminds me of one of the tracks from Pearl Jam's latest.
A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun
Another proper rock tune, this song shimmers with a menace in the verse which is exploded by a joyful, flag-waving chorus that is accompanied by a fantastic lead guitar flail, like Bradfield has decided to be Slash for all of eight seconds - and yes, this is the song featuring Slash's former GN'R bandmate Duff McKagan. It's a crowd favourite in the making.
All We Make Is Entertainment
"All we make is entertainment/A sad indictment of what we could have/We were part of the grand illusion." Well, quite. While the Manics once wanted to change the world and blaze brightly, selling millions while referencing continental philosophers, they now understand that all pop music is ephemeral, and you have to do what you can within the system. As far as the song goes, it's another smart melody - a chorus that you'll find yourself singing along with.
The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever
Oh my god... how many songs can one song remind me of? And in my dotage I can't pin a single one down. Suffice to say that this song contains elements of quite a few other works on the fringes of my musical consciousness. Its chorus - again with female backing vocals - is superb. There's a stadium rock sound to this that is offset by Nicky Wire's vocals on the verses. It's probably my favourite on the album, simply because of its oddness.
Don't Be Evil
Manic Street Preachers go out on a high with a brash, flashy rock'n'roll song that lets its hair down. It's a three minute pop song that bears a resemblance in style (at least on the verses) to Roses In The Hospital. The chorus is a bullet-brisk little pop nugget... and then it ends, as all good rock tunes should, on one chord and the last shimmer of cymbals.
I'm confused. I think I like it overall. It's certainly improving with repeated listens. It has elements from all periods of their career, but it also covers new ground for them. There are some moments that beg to be skipped, but there are also some genius moments.
If this is an attempt for mass communication - to be embraced at a national consciousness level once more - then I'm far from convinced it's going to work. The twin albums of Everything Must Go and This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours caught the nation napping. They combined massive choruses with wide support for homegrown rock - the time was ripe for hiding anti-establishment, intelligent, philosophical lyrics in elegant choruses and have Chris Evans, Chris Moyles and Terry Wogan play them.
But those massive audiences have moved on; the two million people in the UK who bought those records will mostly be people who are unaware the band are still going. I'm not convinced that the songs on Postcards From A Young Man will lend themselves to massive radio play in today's pop world. It's a very interesting album, and certainly it's the younger, edgier sister of Send Away The Tigers, so it'll do all right. Any more than that? I remain to be convinced.
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