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Rewind The Film
A Biography by Dorian Lynskey
‘Rewind the Film’ is the Manic Street Preachers’ quietest and most beautiful album yet. In certain lights it is also their bleakest and most exacting since ‘The Holy Bible’, but the Manics have always oscillated between defiance and despair, and each emotion contains at least a grain of its opposite.
When we call a band “survivors”, it’s usually a polite way of referring to their age, or to some vanquished addiction. But the Manics’ songbook is fundamentally about survival, as they constantly take stock of what’s been lost, what remains and what comes next. Their endurance isn’t the complacent variety that keeps bands circling the globe like ghost ships long after they’ve run out of things to say. It’s something that needs to be fought for, and justified, at every turn.
Just as ‘Generation Terrorists’, re-issued to great acclaim last year, encapsulated how it felt to be young and fierce and gloriously unreasonable, ‘Rewind the Film’ explores the treacherous territory of middle age: “inbetween acceptance and rage,” to quote ‘Builder of Routines’. “This album is a meditation on mortality,” says Nick. “We’re the grown-ups now. The hinterland between 40 and 50 is just so difficult to navigate for a band like us.”
The original plan, true to form, was implausibly audacious – a vast armada of songs – but gradually they realised they were making two separate albums, the second of which was recorded simultaneously in Berlin and will be released next spring. “It’s been a strange experience,” says James. “I usually feel like I live in two bands but for once I actually felt that the two distinct versions of the Preachers were active at the same time.”
Having reconnected with the anthemic ferocity of their youth on ‘Send Away the Tigers’ (2007), ‘Journal for Plague Lovers’ (2009) and ‘Postcards From a Young Man’ (2010) – a phase that culminated in their retrospective ‘National Treasures’ world tour — the Manics found themselves in a new, more exposed place. “We squeezed every last bit of anthemic energy and belief in the idea of being in a rock’n’roll band and there was nothing left,” says Nick.
His lyrics for ‘Rewind the Film’ demanded a more contemplative sound: the acoustic-based album they’d been talking about making for 20 years. Back then the template was the cold, detached narratives of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ but now James found himself reaching for different influences: Leonard Cohen’s ‘Songs From a Room’, the Cardigans’ ‘Long Gone Before Daylight and Anglo-German classical composer Max Richter. “Those were the three things that came to mind when I was reading Nick’s lyrics. I started seeing musical pictures in my head. You have to be careful when you say acoustic album because people think you’re just battering on boxes and having a hoedown. As a band we wanted to make something with the emotional depth of REM’s ‘Automatic for The People’”.
‘Rewind the Film’ is far from sparse – in fact, it features some of the Manics’ richest, most imaginative arrangements – but James only plays electric guitar once, on ‘3 Ways to See Despair’. “It’s as radical a departure as we’re ever going to make,” says Nick. “We’ve never released a single without James’s electric guitar on before.”
This being the Manics, ‘Rewind the Film’ is not an album of woodsmoke and wistful autumnal reflections on the passing of time but a hard stare in the face of death – not just the deaths of friends and family members, but the death of ideals. It registers the shock felt by a doggedly principled band looking around at a country again dominated by the oldest of elites, from the monarchy to old Etonians, and a music scene overrun by the privately educated and in hock to corporate brands, where the concept of selling out has become a weird relic.
Nick explains “It’s shocking. The idea that most things you believe in are seen as passé is scary. You get really tired of trying to believe in anything. It seems to be a much easier pathway to forget about any principles whatsoever. This album is the sound of a band running away from itself really. It’s the fall of the Manics empire, just crumbling around us.”
In what Nick calls its “cruel self-examination,” ‘Rewind the Film’ also relates back to the more introspective moments on ‘This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours’, and is equally grounded in the soil and psyche of South Wales. Apart from ‘Builder of Routines’ and ‘Running Out of Fantasy’, which were recorded in Berlin, it was made in Cardiff and mixed at Rockfield. “There’s a mystery and serenity on ‘This Is My Truth …’ that has come back on this record,” says Nick.
Hence the chillingly beautiful self-analysis of ‘This Sullen Welsh Heart’ with its stark confession, “I don’t want my children to grow up like me,” and the eerie seclusion of ‘Builder of Routines’, which features softly devastating French horn from Sean Moore: “So sick and tired of being 4 Real/Only the fiction still has the appeal.” Nick’s incorrigible refusenik mentality is a source of both pride and irritation. “I don’t expect your sympathy/I’m old, I’m strange, I’m confidential,” sings James on ‘Running Out of Fantasy’s’ isolationist folk.
There are ghosts from the past, too. ‘3 Ways to See Despair’ (Neil Young watching the night close in) was inspired by a magazine feature about Stuart Adamson, of the Skids and Big Country, who committed suicide in 2001. ‘As Holy as the Soil (That Buries Your Skin)’ is a stirring love song to Richey featuring a Dexy’s style horn section.
The heart of the album is the sumptuous title track, based on a sample by maverick composer David Axelrod’s 1969 song ‘A Little Girl Lost’ which the Manics re-recorded note for note featuring resonant guest vocals from James’s old friend Richard Hawley. Seeking shelter in childhood, it’s a bleak retort to the heroic nostalgia of ‘Postcards From a Young Man’. “You can’t get more honest about ageing and the passing of time,” says James. “For Nick’s sanity I wanted someone else to come in and take the hit emotionally. I love Richard Hawley. There’s something about him that will not be bowed.”
The Manics have always been our greatest idealists — lifelong believers in the power of a song to shake, burn and remake you — so perhaps the album’s most devastating song is ‘Anthem for a Lost Cause’, with lyrics by James. It came from hearing a late-night Radio 4 programme about whether songs still matter.
“Can songs connect with a generation anymore?” asks James. “Can they become a signpost to something? I’m not saying it’s right but, in the wee hours of the morning, my answer was no. Perhaps the song has lost its place in the cultural landscape and its ability to define anything other than good times. There is resistance in this song but there’s also an admission of defeat. Music has become a lifestyle backdrop, an app, a sync, a selling point. I think there’s a suspicion of confrontation: it’s crass and it doesn’t sell. But I’m still looking for a song to atomise the day, to change the particles in the air.” He laughs. “If anyone thinks Nick’s a miserable bastard then they should look at me.”
So ‘Rewind the Film’ is, as Nick says, “our most bare and honest album since ‘The Holy Bible’”. But it is also rippled with warmth and grace, with many surprising departures. English singer-songwriter Lucy Rose counterbalances James on ‘This Sullen Welsh Heart’ while Cardiff based Cate Le Bon takes the lead on ‘4 Lonely Roads’ (written entirely by Nick), a tender, AE Houseman-influenced plea for faith: “And if we can then we must/Hold our heads up and learn to trust.” Optimistic (to a “slightly misleading” extent says Nick), single ‘Show Me the Wonder’ is a brass-bright celebration of doubt: “Is it too much to ask to disbelieve in everything?” The Max Richter-inspired electronic reverie of ‘(I Miss the) Tokyo Skyline’ honours the city where Nick feels most free from himself and from the past.
‘Manorbier’, a cinematic instrumental about the Norman castle in West Wales where Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw used to write, was James’s attempt to “splash love on the canvas” with the aid of a leviathan theremin riff. It offers a way out, because with the Manics there is always a way out, and it leads to ‘30 Year War’, a powerhouse history lesson about the crushing of the working class and the baleful return of “old Etonian scum”.
“It’s a lyric nobody else could write,” says James. “It’s a shock to the system and it’s a great bridge between this record and the next.” Thus an album that begins with the sombre confession “I can’t fight this war anymore”, and proceeds to consider the implications of defeat, ends with a resurgent roar, back from the depths.
Next year, the Berlin album will see the Manics turn their gaze towards the wider world. “It’s more like the logical conclusion of ‘The Holy Bible’ and ‘Journal for Plague Lovers’, with a European disco edge,” says Nick. “I felt like I was someone else writing that.”
For now though the Manics are looking inwards with piercing clarity and asking themselves the hard questions that most bands don’t dare say out loud. And if the words seem unforgiving in cold type, then the music challenges and transforms them, bringing forth precious drops of hope as if in riposte to the nocturnal defeatism of ‘Anthem for a Lost Cause’. The song still matters. These songs matter. To quote ‘This Sullen Welsh Heart’, “The act of creation saves us from despair.”
“My barometer is if you’re as honest in your joy as you are in your misery then you’ll be fine,” says James. “We have a lot of shortcomings as a band and as people but I think we’re the right band for that job: misery and joy in equal measure.”
“Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.” – Albert Camus
Dorian Lynskey writes for the Guardian and Q. He blogs regularly at 33revolutionsperminute.wordpress.com