What happens when encroaching middle-age dulls your punk spirit? You try to remember what made you angry in the first place. Caroline Sullivan on the Manic Street Preachers' rebirth
One Saturday morning about six weeks ago, a DJ on indie station Xfm was entertaining listeners by attempting to decipher the cover artwork of the new Manic Street Preachers album, Send Away the Tigers. He thought he had uncovered the meaning behind the misty, greyish photograph and wasn't sure he approved: "There are two girls, one dressed as an angel and one as a devil ... they're walking away from a bridge, which looks like the Clifton suspension bridge, and I just can't decide whether that's poignant or distasteful."
And there, in a nutshell, is the problem the Manics face as they release their eighth studio album. They - singer James Dean Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire, drummer Sean Moore - see themselves as surging into the future with one of their toughest and most political albums yet. The rest of the world sees them as a band trapped in aspic, still defined by the disappearance of guitarist Richey Edwards, whose car was found abandoned at the Severn (not the Clifton) bridge in 1995. Told of the DJ's comment a few weeks later, Wire and Bradfield are respectively indignant and unruffled.
"It's a bridge in upstate New York!" says Wire. "He must've presumed we're so heartless that we'd turn a bad memory into something 'distasteful'." The more phlegmatic Bradfield shrugs. "New Order dealt with [the death of Ian Curtis] in that blunt sort of way. It was their way of getting closure."
While Edwards still comes up in conversation, especially when Wire is speaking - he refers to him casually and often, as if he's just stepped out of the room - it's clear the band have also long since come to terms with their loss. "As time passes, obviously Richey is still our friend, but he seems more an icon now than a former friend," is Bradfield's take, while Wire has moved on to the point where he confesses to using Edwards' memory in "almost a cynical way" - as a trigger to help him write songs such as the new single, Your Love Alone Is Not Enough, which is intended as a conversation with the missing guitarist.
What is driving the Manics now, according to an essay Wire wrote on MySpace, is a desire to "destroy what we are ... reduce ourselves to a pile of rubble" - the aim being to rebuild themselves into an even more inflammatory edifice. They regard it as imperative to their survival - after their tepid 2004 album, Lifeblood, they were faced with the fact that they had become a comfort-zone band their polemical younger selves would have despised. They had long since turned 30, got married and lost touch with the inner rage that fired the first part of their career. They were on the verge of what was, in their eyes, the worst fate that could befall them - irrelevance.
"Lifeblood was unique because you can hear our brains trying to make sense of it," admits Bradfield, his fist hovering over a dish of rice crackers that's just been deposited on the table in a London hotel bar. "At one point, we weren't even playing in the same room. We thought detachment might help [the recording process]." Wire, who carries off eyeliner and maroon hair better than the average man of 38, agrees. "Yeah, we tried to get rid of passion and humanity - and we then realised that was part of what made us work. We have an instinctive thing. We are relics and we know we have to stick to what we do best."
Bradfield, Wire and Moore have spent the last three years reconnecting with their passion for punk rock, and for pronouncments on culture and politics - the same unwieldy ingredients that inspired them as 20-year-olds from the Welsh town of Blackwood. Fifteen years of rock stardom, and the wealth that tags along with it, haven't eroded what Wire calls their "socialist existentialist" principles, but touring the world has forced them to tweak their manifesto a bit. Playing in Cuba in 2001 opened their eyes to the problems of something they had idealised. "I've seen the failure of communism first-hand," says Wire. "I thought Cuba also had exceptional facets, like the health service and education, but the classic ideology that looks brilliant on paper - human nature isn't capable of existing like that."
The Iraq war is the subject of two new songs - Rendition and Imperial Bodybags - which say pretty much what you would expect them to. In person, though, Bradfield is more equivocal. While "absolutely against the war", he admits to a perverse admiration for pro-war journalist David Aaronovitch, and was a fan of his controversial Guardian column. "Aaronovitch was wrong, but it was fascinating to read him and then read [anti-occupation broadcaster] Simon Jenkins. The battleground is between Jenkins and Aaronovitch, the battle for the soul of the left. The left [has gone] to war with itself - it's secular versus democracy versus theocracy, blah blah blah. Watching a pitched battle between politicians and journalists like Polly Toynbee, Aaronovitch and George Galloway for the top place on the left, it kind of feels like the left is an invigorated place now. To see the left as a confused, invigorated place is politics as entertainment. [The British] compartmentalise politics, and either go on a march with a wax jacket on, or go on a march with a Bush mask. You don't have to buy into any of it."
Bradfield pauses. "I'm not expressing this well. Nick is better with words - he writes the lyrics. I'm just a dumb musician." In fact, Bradfield is more articulate than many of his pop peers, which goes some way toward explaining why the Manics aren't especially chummy with other groups. They still make band decisions - such as whether to give their support to charity events - according to their socialist value system and only after exhaustive debate.
Wire, for instance, is giving July's Live Earth concerts a wide berth. "Al Gore is right about global warming, but there's another inconvenient truth you need to know, and that's that he lost the most winnable election in years through being absolutely useless. I believe in high taxes, and I believe, bizarrely, that I'd rather give my money to Gordon Brown than a charity. I'd rather save the world through taxes than charity. I think problems can still be solved through politics."
Last year, Bradfield and Wire got solo albums (respectively titled The Great Western and I Killed the Zeitgeist) out of their systems, which Bradfield believes "decluttered" them. Send Away the Tigers (the title is a Tony Hancock phrase pertaining to the comedian's battle with alcohol) is the concise, punch-in-the-gut result, and there is a growing consensus that the band are worth listening to again. Tickets for this month's 23-date UK tour, for instance, sold out more quickly than any of their previous tours. "We were scared putting the tickets on sale, and we're still fragile in confidence," Bradfield admits.
Loss of confidence is the downside of being outsiders who have never really been insiders, even at the height of their Brit-winning, million-selling success in the late 90s. They can't call on a massive mainstream fanbase to get out and buy Send Away the Tigers - they've almost reverted to relying on viral marketing. Not that they would call it that. While Moore is au fait with technology, the other two decidedly are not. Bradfield has never sent an email in his life, handwrites his blog entries for the band's website and confesses to "shaking like a pensioner" when confronted by self-checkouts at the supermarket. Not to be outdone, Wire is "depressed by the whole internet culture, where seeing someone fall over on YouTube is supposed to be interesting".
It's a brave stance and - given their perpetual fascination with popular culture, which saturates the new album - a contrary one. As a young band in the early 90s, their urge to be heard beyond the borders of Blackwood led them to bombard music journalists with earnest, handwritten letters; 15 years later, with communication now a matter of clicking a mouse, they still prefer pen and paper. Intellectually of the 21st century but spiritually of the typewriter age (Wire even writes lyrics on one), they're the odd ones out in British rock.
"Discourse is still the centre of Manics culture," says Wire, who deplores the dearth of politically motivated younger bands. Franz Ferdinand? "They committed the worst ever lyrical crime [on Do You Want To]: 'Here we are at the Transmission party/ I love your friends, they're all so arty.' Crap!" Pete Doherty? "He did have an angsty appeal for a while." My Chemical Romance? "I'd rather my daughter got into them than some of these British bands."
So why does pop still need the Manics? "Because we're the only pissing-blood rock'n'roll experience on stage," Bradfield says promptly. In Wire's view, they occupy "a unique space in UK rock'n'roll. There's the Who, the Stones, the Clash, maybe Blur and Radiohead and us. It's a unique club." Bradfield nods. "And we don't reduce things to kitsch and irony. We're a ghost-like presence, hovering over people's consciousness."