Monday, December 31, 2012

"As distant as your former sins"

Manic Street Preachers: 'Postcards From a Young Man' (2011)

I don't believe in 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
These are the postcards from a young man
They may never be written or posted again

It's a good job this album was left 'til last. It took me a long while before I could warm to the Manic Street Preachers' most recent album, Postcards From a Young Man, especially after the impressive feat that was Journal For Plague Lovers. By comparison Postcards can't seem anything more than a step back into the sound of Send Away the Tigers, and indeed, just as Tigers proved to be a commercial turnaround for the Manics, so Postcards has been lauded in some circles as being a tremendous return to form. The question is then, what is that form? First and foremost, it's the culmination of a common arc in the life of a maturing musical ensemble - from popular voice resolving ultimately to the personal. It's a matter of the Manics as they are today, the central idea of Postcards being the present and not the past, confronting reality and not idealism with the accrued experience and wisdom of middle age. In an industry and age that demands younger acts and more immediate roads to fame and success, perhaps surviving long enough to write an album based around middle age is itself a revolutionary act.

Postcards is also an album also about distance, particularly that of distancing one's self from the past, from memory and the disappointment of age. The postcards of the album's title track - representations of old media, are left behind, not out of disillusionment or failure, but because an understanding has been reached. As has the comfort and the compromise of middle age, and a less-than-reactionary Nicky Wire claims "I am a happy consumer" in Hazleton Avenue, a love song to a youth of record collecting. Looks to the past on this album are wistful, but not filled with regret; they are those of a life lived well, and a settling reached with maturity. The musical references are themselves ageing - while early Manics would routinely nod towards The Clash, Guns 'N' Roses and Hanoi Rocks, Postcards has hooks that range from classic rock (Cheap Trick, Queen, Elton John), Dad rock (Green Day) and even Waters-Era Pink Floyd (pre-chorus Auto Intoxication) - there's even some late-sound Beatles in here, I swear. It makes for a rather homogenised set of songs, and somewhere in their composition and delivery the old voice of the Manics rarely breaks out, save for an extraordinary couplet in Auto-Intoxication where James Dean Bradfield strains at his leash, bawling: "...disaster isn't coming, it's already arrived / I am so lucky, I think that I survived."

In all of this, Postcards strikes me as a pretty 'up' album. Political songs are rare, and lack the edge of their predecessors. All We Make is Entertainment laments the passing of British Industry and the rise of cheap reality television (whose overnight 'stars' are targeted in album closer Don't Be Evil), and the easy acceptance of this in a post-industrial world. But with an opener to All We Make like this:

  I'm no longer preaching to the converted / That congregation has long since deserted.

...Wire could just as easily be writing about his band in 2012. Postcards works best for me when it isn't attempting to hit big, global issues or even, as is the case above and Internet-wary A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun (which doesn't so much rail against its demons as describe them) such low-hanging fruit. If that sounds odd given the band's age and its not shying from weighty themes in the past, then perhaps that's the distance I also sense in the whole album; what does work here is the personal, the reflective, the greater part of Postcards. Golden Platitudes, the album's closest thing to a slow 'ballad' is another mediation on 'what we were' and 'how we used to be compared to now', and does reference a larger social concern - the lack of 'fight' and passion in Western society - our overall acquiescence, but it comes across better as an intimate song, rather than another raging against a sleeping world.

If the Manics have lost their voice of outrage (and I really don't know if they have - Journal For Plague Lovers suggests they can still match great incendiary music to Richey's lyrics), then they could do worse than drop that stance and go for something more direct and personal. Would it still be Manic Street Preachers? I don't think that's an important question when the distance of this album tells enough of the story well. As I argued in my review of Simon Price's biography, Manic Street Preachers of the second decade of the Twenty-first century are a different band - they have to be, and probably have become this despite themselves. The good thing about this is for them it works just as well. The older, younger Manics have faded into history, but there's life in the band yet. Whether Postcards From a Young Man, the last album before Wire's proclaimed 'hiatus' for the band, proves to be their swansong, then there's enough on this album to satisfy that transition.

Cover story: Why, hello Mister Tim Roth and Polaroid camera, both taken in better days, and in a shot which recalls the covers of The Smiths' albums. Inside it's your actual series of photos sort of related to the topics of the songs, but otherwise it's a reasonably understated presentation.

Videos: Such a long way from the early days that we can now afford to literally sit on the sidelines while Anna Friel and Michael Sheen make chess look sexy:

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