BEST OF 2013: 13. Manic Street Preachers – Rewind The Film

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?

Classic Album: Manic Street Preachers ‘Everything Must Go’

Having released the bleakest record of their career, and quite possibly of the entire decade, with 1994’s ‘The Holy Bible’, the Manics were reaching critical mass and it seemed something had to give. Chief tunesmith James Dean Bradfield was becoming worried that he wouldn’t be able to fit the increasingly polemical lyrics of Richey Edwards, permanent icon and sometime guitar player, to workable melodies. After poor sales of their bold third album, the band feared they might be dropped and, in February 1995, an American tour was looming on the horizon when Edwards disappeared.

Manics EMG

After several months of uncertainty, the band vowed to go on. Convening for a nervous get-together in a Cardiff studio, they attempted a run-through of a song called ‘A Design For Life’, assimilated from two different lyrics Nicky Wire had provided Bradfield with in the months after Edwards’ disappearance. Realising that they had something special on their hands, the Manics attempted to record, with Stephen Hague in the producer’s chair, but found the results to be mixed. Opting instead for Siouxsie and Associates producer Mike Hedges, revered at the time for his stellar work on McAlmont & Butler’s ‘Yes’, the band decamped to a French Chateau and got to work. Described by Bradfield as “the most idyllic experience the band has ever had,” the results were to reverse their commercial decline and redefine how the band was viewed.

Continue reading “Classic Album: Manic Street Preachers ‘Everything Must Go’”

5. Manic Street Preachers–Postcards From A Young Man

Best of 2010I was more than a little chuffed to be given ‘Postcards’ to review for Clash Magazine. As a Manics fanboy of some standing, whose obsession can be traced back to my early teens, I was curious to hear what “one last shot as mass communication” would actually sound like. I was delighted and, judging by the overwhelming positive critical reaction the album received, so were many other people. The Manics at their most polished, ‘Postcards’ paved the way for unlikely appearances on Something For The Weekend and Strictly Come Dancing, as well being piped through my local Co-op only this morning. This is deliriously outlandish pop which has soundtracked the second half of the year for me.

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That Clash review also brought about a couple of special moments for me. Firstly, this appeared on Twitter…

MSP Twitter

and then, in an interview with BBC Wales, Nicky had this to say:

Clash magazine gave us a great review the other day, and there’s no need for them to. They’re a young, glossy, cool magazine, but their review was really brilliant.

What a nice chap! Both were happy coincidences arising out of them releasing an absolutely marvellous late period album and proving that they still had the old fire in them. Having spent far too long talking about me, here is that original review once again:

Leave your prejudices at the door and open up your ears. After the militant basslines and scorching vocals of ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, the Manics are going for your heart. Talked up as one last shot at “mass communication,” this is an unashamedly pop record and its chutzpah is staggering. Gospel choirs, soaring strings and choruses you could use as landmarks in a blizzard make for an astonishing listen.

The joyous bombast of first single ‘(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love’ never diminishes, similar to much of what follows, and it heralds a shift in approach from the band. The album could be subtitled ‘Happy Songs About Serious Stuff’, so frequently are complex lyrics presented alongside glorious pop hooks. Take ‘Hazelton Avenue’, which couples an admission that consumerism can make you happy with a riff which could hold its own in a battle with ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. Then there’s ‘Golden Platitudes’, reflecting on the disappointments of New Labour set against delicate strings and swooning backing vocals before giving way to an outrageous ‘la-la-la-la-la-la’ middle eight. It’s majestic.

Classic ‘Everything Must Go’ rock has its place too, with ‘A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun’ and ‘All We Make Is Entertainment’ both evoking that era. If ‘Journal…’ marked a return to the dark brilliance of ‘The Holy Bible’ then ‘Postcards…’ nods to the stadium-sized splendour of their fourth album. The additional confidence that comes with releasing your tenth album has allowed these meticulous students of pop to ditch the shackles and just go for it. Most remarkable of all tracks is the duet with Ian McCulloch, ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’, a slinking soulful number with both James and Mac in masterful form. It is unlike anything either men have done before and utterly beautiful.

There will be plenty of people who opt to be snobby about the fact that this record is so commercial, so polished and so brazen but those people are all, to a man, idiots. If you can’t love these songs, you are incapable of experiencing joy itself.

I Think I Found It. Again.

Nicky Wire really believes in his band. His passion is obvious, his fervour frequently unconstrained and his spelling frankly atrocious. He still writes messily spontaneous manifestos for each record, as if twenty years haven’t passed. He takes wilful potshots at the famous and revered and stands as tall as his knackered knees will allow as he proclaims his songs “so good every radio station will have to play them.” It is, unquestionably, all genuine. It’s often quite obvious that Nicky Wire is a massive fan of the Manic Street Preachers. Camcorder footage from the recording of ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ preserves last winter’s snow as it fell around Faster Studios in Cardiff, soundtracked by Wire clumsily, feebly but – crucially – enthusiastically singing an early incarnation of ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’. Featuring a guest vocal from Ian McCulloch alongside James Dean Bradfield’s formidable pipes, it is one of the most magical moments on ‘Postcards’ and surely ranks amongst the best Manics songs to date. It embodies all of the pop swagger Nicky dreamt of when plotting this latest bid for recognition. Notes such as ‘Queen plating ABBA’ and ‘strings to break your heart’ make it quite clear that this is an album which is unashamedly commercial, unashamedly polished and unashamedly huge.

Nicky Scrap

Some Kind Of Nothingness’ is a beautiful meeting of minds, melodies and voices played out across an epic soundscape, bolstered by swooning strings and a gospel choir which stays just the right side of cheesy. It is perfect pop music and it’s something which the band couldn’t have done ten or even five years ago. It is the ultimate manifestation of a band truly at ease with itself. The spectre of ‘The Holy Bible’ hung over them for years; a long time fan favourite but a totem of trickier times, it was a far cry from the tinny sheen of ‘So Why So Sad’ and the cascading piano of ‘I Live To Fall Asleep’. ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ offered more in that vein and brought the spellbinding lyrics of Richey Edwards to a new audience along with the exorcising of a few musical demons along the way. It cleared the decks and firmly flung all baggage overboard. The confidence borne of the realisation that there’s no longer anything to prove doesn’t always lead to positive results, but on this occasion all is well. As the choir swells behind Mac bellowing ‘never stop, never stop, never stop, never’ prior to the final chorus of ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’ the shameless pursuit of pristine pop is realised and the smartest gamble the band have taken in a while pays off in style. Though this song, and the album as a whole, will rub some people up the wrong way as a result of its fearless ambition, it has prompted a rebirth which had seemed so unlikely. ‘Postcards’, like ‘Everything Must Go’ before it, stirs something in me, triggers a casual euphoria and a day without it seems so very, very wrong.

Journal For A Manics Lover – Cardiff Castle, September 1st 1998

Being called a “fucking squirrel” by James Dean Bradfield, aged 15, was a very special moment for me. Having chatted with me about my home town for a good five minutes, he was incredibly gracious as I kept flinging items in front of him to be signed. Sat in the confines of Cardiff Castle, having just been privy to, the still to be released, ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’ on some truly massive speakers, I was in my element. The sudden appearance of James next to me marked the first time I ever felt what you might call star struck. Having won a competition to attend the launch of the Manics’ fifth album, I was more than a little giddy that evening. Furnished with an information pack which contained an A4 booklet with each of the tracks’ lyrics, page by page, along with a selection of press photos, already seemed ludicrously exciting to my teenage mind without the addition of an actual Manic to scribble all over them. It marked the culmination of three years ascending to fever pitch over anything and everything the Manics had released. I’d come late to the party, I’d only really known them as a three-piece, but I was totally hooked. They were my band, as they have been to so many people at various points over the last twenty years. They’d grown up thirty miles down the road from me, felt no pressure to fit in and were endearingly caustic yet frank in interviews.

For many months thereafter, ‘This Is My Truth…’ was my album of choice more often that not. It’s not their best, it didn’t top the majesty of ‘Everything Must Go’, but it defined a moment for me and listening to it today I found I could remember almost every word. A new Manics album was a proper event for me, whether I heard it sat in the same room as James or by doing battle with a dial-up connection and the nascent days of Napster, and I’ve realised today that that hasn’t really changed. As is transparently obvious to anyone who regularly reads this site and follows the associated Twitter feed, I’ve had ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ since the end of July. I had to write a review of it after only four days of, admittedly solid, listening. I’ve continued to play it furiously in the intervening weeks, still backing in its all-out power-pop glory and massive riffs. However, being able to pick up the various editions today, in person, from Spillers Records brought back all of those memories of pre-ordering ‘This Is My Truth…’ from Woolies to make sure I got an embossed cover and of diverting my dad from ferrying me to a university interview in London to Sister Ray to acquire ‘Know Your Enemy’.

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This tremendous set of songs, one of their best I would argue, is beautifully packaged and, out of all of the versions available, the 2CD set housed in a hardback book probably represents the best value for money, containing pages from Nicky’s scrapbook, early versions of lyrics and demos of the whole album on the bonus disc. This week, I intended to write at great length about this record and why I find myself slightly surprised at how much it means to me. As you’ll have noticed, Just Played is going to wear a slightly different outfit for the week. Should you dislike the Manics intensely, all will be back to normal by Monday 27th.