When the Manic Street Preachers left the Olympia stage in June last year, James Dean Bradfield uttering an elegiac oath about not letting the past diminish the present and the giant backdrop of Jenny Saville’s tormented child’s eyes staring back at us, it seemed clear that the sheer emotional weight of the Journal For Plague Lovers album had taken its toll on the band. So much so that some doubted we’d hear anything from them again. State was surprised then to hear rumblings of a new project early this year and even more so to receive the end product so soon. The terse wail of frustration has given way to the reflective, almost nostalgic but still angst-ridden afterglow of Postcards From A Young Man.
It’s a booming giant of an album that attempts to corral all the Manics loves into one triumphant aural Blitzkrieg. Chunks of George Harrison-type melody jostle up against JG Ballard quotes, while the pomp and ceremony of Queen is used to grind out a climactic, frustrated battle cry. Postcards is unapologetically radio-friendly but still retaining the Manics’ black humour and long-established ideals. It’s the Manics on a mission once again but this time, as Nicky Wire puts it with all the dramatic gusto of a well-seasoned spin doctor, it’s “one last shot at mass communication”.
Wire closes his eyes, hidden behind giant Liz Taylor shades, and winces, attempting to adjust his lanky frame into some kind of comfortable position. He reflects about the past year and a half and the effect it had on the band. “The fact that I didn’t write any lyrics at all for Journal obviously meant that I could stockpile a lot of words and quite a few tunes which made it onto the record. So it just felt like this album was the logical successor to Send Away The Tigers and Journal For Plague Lovers was a kind of fantastical backing band to the genius of Richey’s words.
“It almost felt like a complete side step doing Journal. Playing it was, you know, heavy! I think at the end of that tour we did feel we’ve done enough now and it just digs an emotional grave. Making it you felt like Richey’s back in the room, everything’s sym-metrical and wonderful, but playing it (live) made you realise he wasn’t there anymore.”
These draining difficulties focused the band to create something musically euphoric, rich and ultimately inclusive. In the spirit of this unifying experience it not only features Sean’s trumpet playing and Nicky’s singing but also a host of collaborators including Duff McKagan, Ian McCulloch, John Cale and a gospel choir. Was this musical jamboree intentional or organic?
“It was intentional,” affirms Wire. “The idea of (mass appeal), rather than appealing to a certain part of our fanbase like Journal did – you know, even back to Generation Terrorists all we ever talked about was reaching as many people as possible. We were always fascinated with the joy of the band and being in a band. There are musical touchstones on the album that are totally burned into us from our youth so it’s kind of a celebration of the band being a band: version two”.
Fans of the strange collaboration, the Manics have done their fair share of duets over the years. Most recently, they almost scored their third number one with the help of Nina Persson on ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’, and the guest roster on this album reads like a private wish list. James makes clear that though they had a private audience with the sometime heroes of their bedroom days, there was no niggling apprehension.
“There wasn’t really any, no. With, Duff we sent the tape to him in LA, he booked a studio, and we trusted him to do the right thing. When you’ve got one of the best rock bass-ists on your record you just know it’s going to be good. We picked the right song for him and he’s just cool. He said (adopts a dodgy surfer-dude accent) ‘Hey man, I’m gonna bring my bass along from Appetite For Destruction today’. He was just so L.A., but in a good way! Whereas with Ian McCulloch, my voice can be a bit histrionic at times, and it needs someone to pin down the truth in the song.”
When it’s suggested that James sounds like Nancy Sinatra to Ian’s Lee Hazelwood there’s ferocious head nodding from Nicky and a throaty laugh of acknowledgement from James. “Well maybe! Maybe Frank and Nancy, there’s an element of that, we did kind of say that. Anyway, I don’t think there was any nervousness; I think we were just made up when he said yes. When you get to the point when your utter idols are on your record it blanks away any cynicism you might have.”
With the mere mention of cynicism, something that the Manics are renowned for along with copious amounts of eyeliner, Nicky’s ears prick up. “We’ve dealt in a lot of cynicism over the years and we naturally left it behind on this album. The string players were local, the gospel choir was local, and it did feel like if we’re gonna go out, let’s just go out on our own terms. Let’s take all the responsibility ourselves.”
Musically, Postcards may be beautiful and grandiose, with friendly welcomes to all, but lyrically the bitter vitriol remains. Wire has sharpened up his fangs for a new enemy, the faceless, thieving internet and the new technological era. ‘Technosceptic Wire’ still holds dear the theories of JG Ballard, applying Ballard’s view of the 60s full of ‘sinister technologies’ and “the death of feeling and emotion that has left us free to pursue our own psychopathologies as a game’ to this era. An outspoken opponent of illegal downloading, Wire seems to spend a lot of time fretting about the corrosive effect the internet has had on culture. This is one of the over arching themes of the album addressed explicitly on tracks like the bruising ‘A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun’.
“I think everything has become too easy,” says Wire. “Nothing is rare anymore. It loses preciousness, therefore everything is skimmed. There’s lots of knowledge out there but no deep knowledge. There was some chap earlier today said he’d seen stuff of us on YouTube I didn’t know even existed. I’m too lazy to bother with computers. It doesn’t stimulate me enough. I’ve never even sent an email. I just never felt the need.
“It is about the beauty of tactile things,” he continues. “I find it incredibly hard to grasp the idea of consuming something that isn’t physical...which is problematic for us! But it’ll never come back. That’s the dark side of it. The internet has devalued music as an art form. Whatever people say there is a consequence to the internet age, there inevitably is because when you treat something as utterly disposable, which the internet does with music...” He leaves the thought unfinished but the implications are clear.
What about the argument for the anarchic nature of the internet as a crazed democracy, something the Manics, the ultimate prole art threat, would admire? What about fan art? State mentions the YouTube film that painstakingly matches every track from Journal For Plague Lovers to a different film, from ‘Boy A’ to ‘Mysterious Skin’; a curt silence follows, hanging in the air as James and Nicky glance at each other palpably uncomfortable with the question. Exhaling sharply, Nicky is first to respond.
“I have ideas like that all the time and I can’t just do it. I mean we wanted to use footage from Aguirre: The Wrath of God, the Werner Herzog film, for the Forever Delayed tour. We thought it’d look brilliant, all the conquistadors going through the jungle. We thought we’d better ask him (Herzog) and he said ‘Yeah, you can have it no problem. That’ll be €25,000 every single night’.” “What they did, it’s just fucking theft,” continues Wire, obviously aggrieved. “That’s not collage and it’s not interesting. That’s just literally saying something applies to something else. I’m sure it’s good...but it’s theft.”
James, attempting to offer balance, picks up from Nicky. “There are things that you can really admire (on the internet),” he allows, “but, you know, it has supplanted something which is just a bit more homemade. We grew up with the fanzine thing and there was an editorial aspect to fanzines, they actually grew up to be magazines sometimes. There was a tiny bit of accountability with fanzines and that aspect seems to be gone.”
Awkward moment over, the discussion moves to the Googlification of the modern world, the tragic closure of small independent record shops, the disappearance of traditional trades and the squeezing out of a much missed old way of life. The album certainly mourns these losses and a damp nostalgia weaves through it. Are the Manics having a kind of midlife crisis, staring into the abyss of the post-everything age of modernity?
“I think it’s like looking for a flipside to the digital realm,” argues James. “We’re now all supposed to be interconnected and influenced by each other, regardless of our backgrounds, our culture, and so on. But the flipside is you do lose a certain identity that you have, that you are always constantly reaching for something beyond your realm and I think there is a subconscious attempt to try and reinstate an identity you grew up with.”
Do these fears stem from anything specifically? The closing track on the album ‘Don’t Be Evil’ obviously references the Google corporate motto. Nicky: “It’s just staggeringly naïve and just funny. The song is meant to be funny! The ultimate corporate phrase. Don’t Be Evil. it’s just hilarious. If BP said that they’d be slaughtered. It’d be like the worst corporate phrase ever! It’s like Google are comfortable with slavery.”“It’s like if you’re allowed go to work and not wear a suit it somehow makes you a better person” adds James.
With this over-riding feeling that the future is as bleak as Skins makes it look and that we’ll all turn into nothing more than rutting spods mashing our collective heads against the screen, will there still be room in this cultural wasteland for a band once as vital as the Manics? Will people even care anymore? Why do the band even care? Nicky sighs. “I sometimes wonder myself if it’s going to have an impact. It must be to do with Journal, It must be to do with the fact that we wanted to make something that connected with people maybe for the last time. Virtuality is on the way , the next step in evolution does seem to be virtual. Nothing will be ‘4 REAL’...”