The first mutterings about this album began as Christmas petered out last year. Domino Records had pulled off another excellent licensing job on a below the radar country/soul/funk/pop/rock/whoknowswhat album that had been released in the US in 2012. I’d never heard of Matthew E. White, but it appeared that was going to change. Being an impatient twonk, I ordered the original pressing from the Hometapes label in Oregon and the LP arrived just as heavy snow hit the South West, in the middle of January this year. I can still remember dropping the needle for the first time as the glare of reflected sun bossed the window next to my turntable and thinking that it seemed a pretty perfect scenario for a debut listen.
No longer a best kept secret, ‘Big Inner’ has, quite rightly, had praise lavished upon it for the entirety of 2013. It is an emphatic record, persuasive in its nature, reflective in its lyrics and euphoric in its melodies. Occupying a territory somewhere between Randy Newman and Bill Callahan, produced by Al Green during his ‘obsessed with ‘Screamadelica’ phase, this is an album to play loud and often. While snow certainly gives it a decent bit of mise-en-scene, it’s far from compulsory. ‘One Of These Days’ simply starts, as if this music is always playing somewhere, and we’re just tuning in every so often. Like many of the seven tracks on the album, it builds slowly and ornately, brass and choirs all playing their part. ‘Big Love’ seems to shudder into action, propelled forth from there by its irresistible bass line and wide-panned percussion. The Hot Chip remix is worth seeking out as it takes all the best bits of the song and gets another three minutes out of them. The vintage feel of the record’s string arrangements is enchanting, giving it the aura of a classic as soon as you meet, and highlighting the organic knitting together of influences and ambition.
‘Big Inner’ is a singular record that feels like an unfathomable vision being poured out into the grooves. Its quirks are also its finest qualities, and White’s insatiable taste for genres and styles seems utterly sincere. The occasional diversions into jazzier terrain are wonderful and the loose, brooding two minutes appended to the swirlingly wintery ‘Hot Toddies’ provide a fascinating bridging point for album closer ‘Brazos’, which itself sticks around for almost ten minutes. Its devotional tone ensures a celebratory feel from the off, but each time the brass riff kicks in and the drums skitter about is a genuine thrill. The mantra-driven second half is relentlessly soulful and gives the gift of gospel music to bearded indie-kids everywhere. ‘Big Inner’ is a remarkable album for a, ahem, be-ginner, and you have to wonder where he can go next. But, for now, just as it was when this opened the year so perfectly, the spotlight should remain on what he has already done so far.
If ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ was ‘one last shot at mass communication’ then this, presumably, was the start of the band simply doing what they want. With talk turning to 2014’s ‘Futurology’, described recently by Nicky Wire as “POSTPUNKDISCOROCK”, it’s worth pausing to take in the quiet majesty of the first of two albums to arrive in quick succession. Regular readers will not be surprised by the band’s presence in this countdown, but it’s worth saying that having followed the band for over seventeen years makes the initial listens to any new music close to excruciating. The promo for ‘Rewind The Film’ arrived just before a weekend of long drives and uncomfortable hotels at a friend’s wedding and so fairly substantial exposure to these songs was granted in a short space of time. The first few plays were fine, if unremarkable. This is not an album of guitar solos or snarling vocal performances – ’30 Year War’ aside. This record has many moments of beauty which, as any fool knows, do not tend to translate well through car stereos. In fact, the breakthrough came later that weekend, whilst wedged into a bed in a gypsy caravan designed for Oompa Loompas. As the warm air of a summer’s night drifted through the window, the album seeped in through headphones and I was sold.
That the title track, featuring a lead vocal from the ever-charming Richard Hawley, was the first thing anyone heard from this record gives some sense of how the band weren’t playing the game this time. It’s a luscious sweep of melancholia, nudged towards brilliance by the late arrival of James Dean Bradfield for a surging chorus. Another of the album’s highlights also features lead vocals from a guest performer; this time it’s Cate Le Bon on ‘Four Lonely Roads’, which marches along swooningly, Le Bon’s voice floating over the backdrop before melding with Wire in the bridge. It’s a wonderfully understated tune and very un-Manics in its nature.
This delicate touch is felt elsewhere too, with ‘Builder Of Routines’ having a brass break which bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘God Only Knows’. This can, of course, only be a good thing and so it proves. Although the verses seem a little cluttered, the sonic palette of ‘(I Miss The) Tokyo Skyline’ is rich and warm, glistening electronica burbling away to good effect. ‘Show Me The Wonder’ and ‘Anthem For A Lost Cause’ tick the singles box rather neatly, with sweeping choruses and a good dollop of parping brass where once might have been emotive strings. Wire takes the vocals for ‘As Holy As The Soil (That Buries Your Skin)’ and is in fine form as he tackles his fond reminiscences of Richey Edwards. ‘Running Out Of Fantasy’ sounds like the loss of hope put to delicately plucked guitar, while ‘Manorbier’ is an instrumental piece which betrays the band’s increasing fondness for modern classical and ambient electronic music. It’s surprisingly well executed, even if it is somewhat overshadowed by the album’s final punch: ’30 Year War’. Described by Wire as a bridging song between this album and ‘Futurology’, it’s a dazzlingly brutal assault on the government and its shortcomings. It’s the sort of lyric you expect from this band, but you have to hear it to realise just how well they can speak for our times. While its successor may end up garnering all the headlines, ‘Rewind The Film’ quietly goes about its business and may well be perfectly positioned to play the long game. Their recent sizzling live form perhaps best highlights how at ease with themselves the Manics are feeling right now and, on this evidence, who can blame them?