After the bleak intensity of last year's Journal For Plague Lovers, Manic Street Preachers have rebounded with a startlingly melodic tenth album
Throughout their 20-year career, Manic Street Preachers have polar-swung between the extremest of extremes: dense, irony-heavy, post-punk artifacts (The Holy Bible, Know Your Enemy) versus sweeping, panoramic, hyper-melodic ones (Everything Must Go, Send Away the Tigers). Their last album, Journal For Plague Lovers, released a scant 18 months ago, was a prime example of the former. Postcards From A Young Man, their tenth, couldn't be more different: a grand assembly of big, bold, plushly-arranged songs that marry rousing blue-collar rock rhythms to red-blooded gospel choruses.
And yet, both records were inspired by similar trigger images. Journal was constructed around the books of lyrics Richey Edwards entrusted to his bandmates shortly before his disappearance in February 1995. Postcards mines even older sources.
"I've kept the postcards that were an inspiration for the record,” reveals bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire on a warm September morning in the Morrison Hotel in Dublin. “25-year-old postcards from James and Richey, from my mum, my brother, they're real and they're full of emotion and and they're tactile. It's the fetishisation of our youth."
The band's musical powerhouse, guitarist and vocalist James Dean Bradfield, went through a similar period of unearthing old correspondences.
“I got all my old letters out from when Nick and Rich were sending us stuff from university,” he says, “and even the envelopes some of the letters are sent in seem like lyrical workouts, rehearsals. They were putting little collages onto the envelopes, so many ways of trying to communicate. Bureaucratic decisions were being made: what we should be, what rules you can't break.
“Rehearsal wasn't just playing in the band, it was all this correspondence. Nick and Richey sent this big diatribe against the mods in university, and it was just like: 'The empty sunglass aesthetic in its rapier sunburning gaze which gives infinitesimal attention to detail which means absolutely fucknothing, conservative rebellion, go away you fucking Harrington jacket and your short fucking hair.'"
Nicky: "And they were all really nice as well... But they all had girlfriends!”
The Manics, one suspects, will never quite exhaust such spleen, but the overriding sense one gets from the new album is that now is not the time to indulge in ennui. From the title tune to the single 'It's Not War (Just the End of Love')' to 'The Descent', these songs state their cases plainly and boldly.
"I think Journal For Plague Lovers was the perfect sidestep,” Nicky considers. “It was a kind of artistic internalisation of someone we missed and loved, but we never felt like we could do anything related to that with this album because Richey's lyrics just dictate a totally different form of the band. I'm well aware that the worst thing for me as a lyricist would be for me to parody Richey, it would be absolutely fuckin' abysmal.”
“There are certain little axis moments that happen in a band like ours that people miss out on sometimes,” James adds. “When Richey went missing only one journalist ever said, 'Wow, that's the last time Nick and Richey will ever write lyrics together.' Nobody picked up on the fact that something was probably going to go on inside Nicky during Journal For Plague Lovers. He was just sat there being a musician, doing exactly what me and Sean had always done. Out of hangovers arise emotions, and I think that's what came out. At the Holy Bible age, you have that sheer force of will to try and internalise and present really dark nihilistic moments as they appear inside yourself. But as you get older, you have an urge to turn it into something else. Almost a sense of pride in turning it into something more positive."
An interesting characteristic of the new songs' core melodies is that they won't tolerate any irony. They demand unambiguous statements.
“That's true,” concedes Nicky. “There is no irony on the record. It's unbelievably melodic, and at one point we were thinking, 'Is this too sweet, is it too much niceness?' but we just had to go with it. There's a lot of things on there that we're kind of scared of saying. We are proud of the fact that it is our tenth album with the same label, the same people, the same management, the same press people, all those things that we don't feel comfortable celebrating. But with this record, we had to celebrate all the parts of the band that we really enjoy.”
In times of depression, folk put on their finery. A couple of songs from the new album were written last autumn, as the band undertook their first American tour in 17 years (documeted for the Independent by Kill Your Friends author John Niven). With typical bravura, the band ran up sizeable bills playing scaled-down shows. In Detroit, they performed in the crumbling Majestic Theatre to a tiny turnout.
The ghosts of that show seem to haunt the new record's combination of Motor City insurgency and Berry Gordy production-line pop perfection. This listener is frequently remided of a scene in Julien Temple's documentary Requiem For Detroit where footage of the Supremes singing 'Where Did Our Love Go?' is projected onto one of the city's many ruined edifices.
“Detroit always had a massive effect on me,” James admits, “and I think it probably came across in that Independent piece. Me and John did some drinking there, and I've always walked around Detroit quite a lot. The thing is you always see beautiful lodge buildings, amazing little hotels where car executives probably went to have their fun, and you imagine the glory days of the concierge in the hotel, the splendour that would have been there, all derived from blue-collar industry.
“But you go past those buildings now and it's almost like a joke vision of ghosts from the past. It kills me actually. There is a will there to try and recapture something, because people really interact with you in Detroit. You don't get many unhappy faces in a bar or a restaurant or a hotel. Obviously that's the milieu of a musician's experience, and I excuse myself for that, but you do sense this fierce will to want something back, and it's never going to come back, and it's a terrible feeling."
There are many Manic resonances in the Motor City, not least the Diego Rivera frescos in the Detroit Institute of Art. Henry Ford commisioned the work as a hymn to the glory of the car industry, but Rivera responded with images of proles sweating blood to feed a monstrous machine.
Nicky: “I've seen that in the car city documentary. They didn't realise it would be so political. The benevolence of Ford backfired.”
James: “The most poignant footage I ever saw was Detroit City car workers attacking Japanese cars, taking them apart with crowbars and setting them alight. That pride had turned into something horrible, going around the streets attacking Japanese cars.”
Nicky: “You can hold it up as the destruction of a working class. It's been destroyed or has morphed into an underclass. The gig we played in Detroit, (there were) maybe 300 people there, going from 5,000 people a night on the previous tour in the UK, but we really did feel duty-bound to play with more passion and skill than we had in maybe five years.”
From one crumbling empire to another: the Manics are one of the few bands left prepared to wax idealistic and demand that music functions as something other than a component of the leisure industry.
“If you look at the way the music industry is reflected upon popular culture, it is immensely depressing,” James declares. “I don't think a lot of people care about getting to their fourth album. They want to do a side project, they want to be a solo artist. What does music stand for except being a gap year activity? Music was a massive silhouette on the cultural landscape and it just isn't now, and it's reflected in a million things. So many things that you once believed in are now completely fucked. I voted for the Labour Party most of my life, and how can it stand up for itself when it's bankrupt economically, when it can't even manage itself? How can we see beyond the irony of that?”
Nicky: “The fact that now there are now so many targets to write about, and particularly in music, and no young bands feel compelled to write about those targets. That's the biggest disconnect, that they don't want to write about it.”
James: “The warning signs were there about seven or eight years ago, when every time a quirky, child-like acoustic track was being made by a musician, it would be an add-on to a car advert. That's what music has become: acoustic music being used to give a car humanity. Every time I walk down the street...' – the New Mazda.'”
Nicky: "And the holy grail of getting the iPod ad, the idea that it's somehow doing society good, but you wouldn't give one of your songs to Nestle 'cos that's bad. Let's face it, it's all part of the same capitalist construct – it doesn't matter how ethical they supposedly are. It does seem like virtuality is the next logical step of evolution. I'm starting to accept it really. Virtual pleasure and virtual life may literally be the next step.”
James: “It's a really bad position to be in to think about such things, because what do you do? Turn yourselves into an Amish rock 'n' roll community where you sit down and relearn the way we used to be? Do you want to be labeled as gloriously out of step? That's a really hard position to be in. But the physical, the kinetic and the cerebral have been disconnected from each other, and it does result in the way music is made. It's the worst age for guitarists, ever. There's no macho bluster. Look, Pete Townsend was a fucking nerd, but when he had a guitar he was a macho prick... 'Won't Get Fooled Again'. That physical violence doesn't seem to get expressed in any kind of way. I think sex still gets conveyed in music a lot, whether it be Kasabian – and I'm a massive fan of them – or some R&B music, but other things don't.”
Nicky: “We're huge music fans. I want to be a fan. There must be a Kurt Cobain somewhere. 'Rage against the dying of the light' is a well-worn poetic cliché but it did have a big effect on this album. I kept hearing it in my head all the time. If we're all gonna go, we're gonna go very loudly, with a lot of the trademarks of our youth still intact.”