Prickly, provocative, pessimistic outsiders in love with lofty ideals and lost causes, the Manic Street Preachers are one of British rock's most unlikely long-term success stories. After 20 years of triumph and tragedy, controversy and confrontation, the Welsh trio sound resurgent and hungry for hits again on their 10th album, Postcards from a Young Man.
With typically romantic melodrama, the Manics are billing this album as "one last shot at mass communication". A lavish, impassioned, huge-sounding record, Postcards from a Young Man features choirs, orchestral strings and a gold-plated duet with Ian McCulloch, of the veteran cult rockers Echo and the Bunnymen. Reclaiming the rousing populist clamour of their 1996 best-seller Everything Must Go, it is the band's most confident work for years and has already earned some of the best reviews of their career.
The mood is quietly upbeat in the group's headquarters, a bunker-like recording studio tucked away down a back street in the Welsh capital of Cardiff. Once acid-tongued young rebels who routinely eviscerated rival bands in interviews, the Manics are now far more domesticated and diplomatic - in public, at least. After all, the singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield, the bass-playing lyricist Nicky Wire (aka Nick Jones) and the drummer Sean Moore are now 40-something family men who write songs for Shirley Bassey and duet with Tom Jones.
All the same, Wire brushes off any suggestion of midlife complacency, insisting these perennial champions of lost causes have not become a lost cause themselves. He quotes Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night by the celebrated Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, with its very Manics message: stay passionate, stay angry, even when facing that most inevitable of lost causes - death. "The Dylan Thomas thing has really grabbed me," Wire nods. "It's something I loved when I was 18 so it almost feels shameless now, but in a way we're raging against the dying of the light. It feels like that every time we make a record. We still stand for emotion, passion, belief, hatred, love, cynicism..."
Thomas is both a national hero and personal icon for Wire, who is currently writing a Doctor Who episode about the doomed poet's dissolute last days in New York. The script is not a BBC commission, and Wire may not even offer it for consideration if his nerve fails him. Even so, he has already lined up a possible star, offering the role to fellow Welshman Michael Sheen during the video shoot for the first single from the new album, (It's Not War) Just The End of Love.
"I think he said yes just to humour me," Wire laughs. "But does anything make you cry more than Doctor Who? There's not an episode goes by without someone either disappearing or dying." Thomas is just one of a huge gallery of literary and artistic heroes whose work is woven into the band's dense, brainy, bookish lyrics. One of their biggest anthems, Design for Life, even opens with the line "libraries gave us power..." Key inspirations for the new album are the cult science fiction author JG Ballard, the playwright Sarah Kane and the popular philosopher John Gray. A natural academic who was almost recruited by the British Foreign Office before rock'n'roll proved a better option, Wire notes wryly that the Manics have inspired far more PhD dissertations than actual bands.
"A lot of journalists thought it was 'vulgar' to wear your influences on your sleeve, but they were finishing a sentence we couldn't quite finish ourselves," says Bradfield. "It was like, if you don't quite get what we're babbling about then read this - here's the real source." As ever with the Manics, political ideas are also central to the new album. Proudly working-class intellectuals from the South Wales valleys, an area once synonymous with coal mining and union militancy, the band have always stood by their old-school socialist principles. But they have also learnt to temper their leftist rhetoric since playing a concert for the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in 2001, a promotional stunt that angered even some die-hard fans.
"We got so nearly destroyed by the whole Cuba trip," Wire sighs. "Since then we've tried to remain more on the outside. I think we're all waiting for the next leap forward in politics, there needs to be a new system. Communism has failed, gigantically. But capitalism has failed even more so, in some respects." That said, Postcards from a Young Man does contain some barbed lyrics about Britain's political rulers, especially the recent Labour administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
"The start of the Labour government had some great ideas," concedes Bradfield. "Devolution in Wales, the minimum wage, the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, sending soldiers to Kosovo to save Muslim lives. It just got unbalanced by a big boulder called Iraq." Wire can't resist a few snipes at the new UK government, especially the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. "The David Brent of politics," he sneers (in reference to Ricky Gervais's comic creation in The Office). "Like a bad motivational speaker."
The culture of illegal downloads and free file-sharing is another current issue that riles the Manics, inspiring the new album track All We Make Is Entertainment. Wire recently engaged in a prickly public war of words with Ed O'Brien of Radiohead over this issue, while Bradfield calls it a "deeply unsocialist" trend that could ultimately bankrupt one of Britain's last-surviving industries. "Music was a massive part of the landscape, but now it's reduced to a dot because of some quasi-philosophy that it should be free," the singer seethes. "The Beatles had the best producer in the world - George Martin, the best studio - Abbey Road, the best orchestras and the best musicians at their disposal. But if The Beatles were around today, they wouldn't have any of that. Why don't records sound as good as they used to? Because there's no money to make these records sound good."
The Manics have absorbed some serious knocks during their two-decade career, notably the loss of their severely depressed guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards in 1995. After 13 years of ominous silence and speculation, Edwards was officially declared dead in 2008. The band paid tribute with last year's darkly abrasive album, Journal for Plague Lovers, which featured the last of their late friend's lyrics. "When you talk about Richey as a friend, someone's son, someone's brother, all those human things are really depressing," says Wire. "But in a kind of mythical way, he was just a brilliant rock'n'roll star. My only regret is the platform he could have had, from us being so big, would have just been amazing. Every time we go on stage there's no sense of closure, there's just a big hole there."
Postcards from a Young Man almost feels like the warm-blooded, uplifting counter-reaction to Journal For Plague Lovers. Like all the best Manics albums, it somehow manages to make songs about alienation and loss feel like heroic, communal celebrations. Lost causes become singalong stadium anthems. "We started down the road of turning something nihilistic into something positive a long time ago, with A Design for Life," nods Bradfield. "It goes all the way back to Motorcycle Emptiness. It's always been there."