The Manic Street Preachers return minus the political sloganeering. Singer James Bradfield tells Tony Clayton-Lea about playing to a different tune.
Has any UK rock band since The Clash been lumbered with the weight of expectation more than Manic Street Preachers? Since the Welsh band came screeching out of the Gwent Valleys almost 15 years ago - enthusiastically sloganeering their way through a mixture of philosophers, writers, politicians, film-makers and musicians - they have always been good for a strategically placed quote about the state of their own and any other nation you care to mention.
"My favourite band ever was The Clash," says James Bradfield, lead singer of Manic Street Preachers whose new album, Lifeblood, is released later this month. "But when they started writing in an internationalist sense they became something of a lesser band for me. In terms of their best lyrics, I've always thought their first album was the best. It's hard to write about that social stuff; it's hard to make it attractive. I would say that, yes, we're living in a period of history when it is time for big statements, but I'm not sure if it's time for a big statement in a song. For better or for worse, it's a relief that we haven't written anything about the Iraq war."
One can understand the pressure of perception that threatens to acutely define a band such as Manic Street Preachers. When they'd rather just kick back and play softball, it seems as if certain sections of the public become irked by their lack of political engagement. As if to illustrate the point, Bradfield tells me about an incident in Cardiff earlier this year.
"I was walking along the street and these two young guys started shouting at me over and over again that Manic Street Preachers hadn't said anything about the war in Iraq. In the end I just had to go over to them and explain as best I could. I mean, what did they want me to do - hire a stage and set it up in the middle of Cardiff, and make my opinion felt?
"I can't think of one musician who is for the war, but just because the band I'm in hasn't said something, we're placed on some imaginary blacklist? It's ridiculous. I know what my opinions are about the war, but I would say it would be slightly naïve of us to write a song about it.
"Why? Because the best songs of ours that have been political have always taken something from the past to illustrate something that is taking place in the present. Songs are always better when they're written in retrospect."
Things change, though, and Bradfield is smart enough to realise that Manic Street Preachers isn't as crucial a band as it once was. How could they be?
They spurted out of the traps with all guns blazing, dispensing in their first two years more passion and rhetoric than most bands can muster in a decade-long career.
The mixture of genuinely sublime and affecting songs (such as Motorcycle Emptiness and Roses In The Hospital) and a coruscating denial of the trappings of the music industry could never last, but by God they tried.
By the time their brilliant, bilious album, The Holy Bible, was released in 1994, the writing was on the wall. In guitarist Richie Edwards's case, the writing was on his arm. This coming February sees the 10th anniversary of his disappearance (presumed wilful).
Yet the band resurfaced from such a tragedy (and let there be no mistake about that; it was indeed a personal tragedy - all four members of the band had known each other since primary school and had forged a fiercely intelligent pop cultural us-against-them attitude that easily set them up for ridicule) by releasing their most commercial album, Everything Must Go in 1996.
This was the second incarnation of the former generation terrorists, a more mature and reflective undertaking clearly influenced by the death of Edwards. The critical reaction was largely positive, but everyone - fans, critics, the mangy dogs in the street - knew the Manics erstwhile nihilism and arrogance had been replaced with something more subtle.
"When we were younger," Bradfield starts to explain, speaking for fellow members, drummer Sean Moore and guitarist Nicky Wire (aka Jones) as much as for Edwards, "the first urge or inspiration for us was that we wanted to write things that surrounded and affected our lives, that inspired us - the community we came from, the friendship we had. What made this all the easier was that we were fiercely ambitious in every sense. As you get older, some things don't change. Our friendship is the thing that completely and utterly makes our working environment the best to be in.
"We've all known each other since we were four years of age, so that makes for no ego being involved. Perhaps your songwriting gets more introspective, and you're not writing about what surrounds and affects you so much. The basis in everything we do is the friendship and trust we have. Also, there isn't as much barefaced ambition as you get older. You're ambitious when you go into the studio, but when you come out having finished a record, you don't put so much pressure on the record itself. That's the only thing that changes."
Bradfield tempers the change in attitude towards ambition with the realisation that he has to alter his attitudes towards certain other things as he gets older. There are so many young bands out there, he says, that music writers want to write about. "A band of our level and age has to understand that. In the same way, these young bands will have to realise that in 10 years - if they're still around. The one thing you have to make sure of is that you've still got the ambition when you enter the recording studio and you're writing the songs."
It irritates Bradfield that, more than all the politically charged bands of the past 15 years, Manic Street Preachers hasn't really been allowed to forget or to let go of its early firebrand image. But, he stresses, a lot of that sense of expectation is the band's fault.
"We gave ourselves ludicrously high standards and ideals over the years, and we failed at various points along the way. Does that set us apart? Perhaps, but I wouldn't want to get too pious about it.
"Whether we're arguing over football stickers or who should play fly half for Wales or graduating to the subject of war or discussing certain philosophies, you'd soon come realise that we can be quite boring. The flip side is that sometimes all the above has made us out to be quite colourless characters. For a few years it certainly meant a certain type of girl was attracted to us."
The band's new record - their first album of original material since 2001's lacklustre Know Your Enemy - is a marked return to form. Less consciously provocative and political, but more in tune with the power of a good song - and never to the detriment of their lyrical prowess, courtesy of Nicky Jones - Lifeblood is Manic Street Preachers, Mark III.
"If someone on the street asked me what I think about things such as Iraq and Bush and all the rest of it, I'd tell them," says Bradfield. "But in the guise of a song, it's a relief to have something else inside us, to have a different urge to write about."
Many bands have built valid, lengthy careers on writing brilliant songs and nothing else, so what Manic Street Preachers have latterly twigged is that recording a very good album and not caring about any specific subtext isn't the most outrageous or irrational thing for them to do. This, too, Bradfield is aware of.
"Sometimes, our records in the past have been more confrontational, but the new album is really more representational. It's a stark difference and something we wanted to do. I think we've earned our stripes to do that, haven't we?"