Having exorcised their demons with 2009’s Journal for Plague Lovers, the Manic Street Preachers are setting their sights back on the charts with Postcards from a Young Man. Nicky Wire gives the lowdown on the band’s “last shot at mass communication”
With their political sloganeering, dogged introspection and glam make-up, the Manic Street Preachers have long given their devoted fan-base a design for life, even before they gave them A Design for Life. Yet surely their most ardent acolytes have had their resolve tested by some awkward, self-reflective ‘wilderness years’ albums. At such times it seemed the Manics were becoming something once unthinkable: irrelevant.
Yet remarkably, 2007’s Send Away the Tigers and last year's Journal for Plague Lovers saw the trio reclaiming their territory whilst clearing out their foreboding attic. Billed respectively as a return to ‘new’ and ‘old’ Manic sensibilities, Tigers and Journal weren’t so easily categorised, sharing more of a jagged, over-lapping line between them.
In that context, upcoming album Postcards from a Young Man is an assuredly ‘New Manics’ album of stadium-swelling choruses, lush orchestration and bold social statements. As an unapologetic paean to nostalgia, hence the title, Postcards is suitably informed by the music and ideals from times even before its obvious forbear, Everything Must Go. Poised as album number ten, the time seemed right to remind Nicky Wire, the group’s de facto mouthpiece, about his original agenda for the Generation Terrorists; “to make one great album then split up.”
“I must admit that me and Richey totally believed in that,” he begins, all too happy to reminisce. “Let’s be honest, we were pop strategists – we didn’t really see ourselves as musicians. We were lyricists and provocateurs. I don’t feel embarrassed about saying it at all, I think it’s just part of the ‘fabulous disaster’. I do feel a bit for James and Sean though because we made them go along with it. We were like the chief whips and they had to tow the party line.”
Initially seen as something of a joke band (lest we forget Steve Lamacq’s ‘for real’ posit) it took some time for critical acclaim to accumulate, as well as time for the group themselves to break out of their self-constraining mould. “It was around the recording of The Holy Bible when we realised we could be another kind of band,” says Wire. “That jump from Gold Against the Soul, to Faster and then from Faster to A Design for Life, I think then we felt we could inhabit maybe one or two or three skins. Perhaps that’s what’s given us our longevity.”
Even in spite of their rhetoric and bold statements, it seemed inconceivable back then that the group would reach their current landmark. In keeping with Postcards yearning for simpler times and disdain for modern culture, Wire contemplates whether the Manics could sustain such a career in today’s industry. “No, I don’t think so,” he states gravely. “I think we’d self-destruct pretty quickly. If your main avenue of making money is ringtones or doing links on adverts, that must be unbelievably demoralising. I can’t understand it when people make out that it’s a better place for musicians now.”
Wire claims they regularly turn down advertisement offers or huge sums of money to play The Holy Bible for one night. “We’ve never been part of what I call ‘subsidised pension music’” he laughs. “I’d rather be hated than be like that.” For Wire, it’s all about keeping things special. “I think there’s a lack of preciousness in today’s music, you know. Music is beyond throwaway now. It’s so disposable because it’s become so easy to steal. Whatever people think, that does end up demeaning the art itself.”
In these dark times, which Wire describes as “not even awful, just mediocre” Postcards’ much-heralded statement of intent is “one last shot at mass communication.” The man himself laughs at hearing the line yet again. “It’s one of my best,” he proudly claims. “Up there with Peter Mandelson.” The statement is within the context of ‘the death of the music industry’, an outlook Wire finds infuriating but reasons that if so, might as well “try and infiltrate the dreadful charts one last time.”
With the contrasting styles of their last three albums, it’s tempting to draw parallels with an earlier period in the band’s career, something Wire is happy to agree with. “Yeah, I do feel it’s a kind of symmetry,” he agrees. “Out of the brilliant ruins of The Holy Bible came Everything Must Go and out of Journal For Plague Lovers will come this.”
Culled from lyrics left by missing guitarist Richey Edwards, it would be fair to assume that Wire approached their previous album cautiously. “I was probably more scared of doing it than anyone,” he confesses. “Since Richey disappeared I’ve found it very hard to look at the words, collages and paintings he left behind. It all felt like an artefact and that my bedroom was the museum it was being kept in. But we wanted to try and frame Richey as a great writer again because the myth sometimes overtakes the substance, if you know what I mean?”
As was perhaps expected, Journal will spell an end to the band’s darker leanings. “We’re only convincing like that when it’s Richey’s words guiding us,” admits Wire. “I wouldn’t be convincing trying to fill that space. It’s one of those albums that’s just there now, like a tablet of stone. If people want that version of us, the sort of post-punk, jagged Manics, then I’m happy for them to choose that.”
Which leads us nicely onto those who perhaps wish to choose the other version of the Manics, or sensibly, to choose both. Lead single (It’s Not War) Just the End of Love signals the band’s biggest volte-face since 1996’s A Design for Life. “It just feels like a classic version of the ‘other’ Manics,” says Wire on choosing it for release. “Full of vim and vigour, really precise strings, brilliant guitar and an awkward title – as usual!”
Postcards also stands as the group’s most collaborative album to-date. Firstly, Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch duets on Some Kind of Nothingness. “He was brilliant,” enthuses Wire. “We treated it like an old-school duet. He said I’ll be the boy and James can be the girl. He really delved into the depths of his soul and he got something really beautiful and rich and textured. It was a hell of a day to be honest.”
Also likely to have made an entry into the Wire diary was working with Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan, on A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun. “When we asked him he said ‘Of course, I’ll just get my old rig that I used for Appetite’. We’re still in love with music, so that was a huge thrill for us.” Finally, Welsh legend John Cale worked on the song Auto-Intoxication with the band. “Those three guests, Duff, John Cale and Ian McCulloch; that pretty much sums up a nostalgic idea of musical touchstones for us, people who really impacted on us growing up.”
It’s a circle of rock ‘n’ roll that continues as the Manic Street Preachers influence a younger generation. Those who were with them in the beginning may have lost touch at times, they may even have felt the Manics were no longer relevant in their lives. However, in describing the very essence of Postcards from a Young Man, Wire inadvertently sums up the band’s own appeal. “In a very strong way, I guess I’m saying how grateful we are to have grown up when we did. I think that when you’re fifteen to, say, twenty-two, so much of what you are exposed to stays with you forever. You might go off it, you might change, but you always end up going back to the source.”