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Postcards From A Young Man
By Stuart Maconie
“The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do.” (Henry Moore)
Most bands don’t get to their tenth album. Mercifully. By then, the youthful brio, the wit, the desire, the flair, the fun, the zeal and commitment have usually all evaporated to be replaced by self-loathing, disappointment and the sour taste of promise unfulfilled, or the deadening torpor of sanctified elder statesman status and the moth-eaten trappings that go with it; the Lifetime Achievement awards, the Rock and Roll Hall of fame, the box set that looks suspiciously like a coffin. Familiarity has bred contempt, old friends have become strangers, laurels are rested on and the hits of prehistory dusted off for the Greatest Hits tour, the divorce settlements, the tax bill.
Ten albums into their life’s work, it would be wrong to say that Manic Street Preachers are raging against the dying of the light. Because the light has never burned brighter or with a fiercer clarity. ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ comes after the acclaimed ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, a record of steely intent and corrosive power on which every lyric was taken from the final folder of work left by former member Richey Edwards just prior to his disappearance in 1995. That album in turn was a typically stark and startling follow-up to 2007s triumphantly resurgent ‘Send Away The Tigers’, an album that gave new heart to their global faithful and introduced the band to new countries, new audiences, new possibilities.
Before those are a canon of albums, singles, shows, gestures, interviews, wisecracks, manifestos and the occasional outfit that have made The Manics the most interesting, intense and inspirational band of their generation. From the headlong didactic samizdat fury of their debut ‘Generation Terrorists’ to the operatic proletarian grandeur and pride of ‘Everything Must Go’ to the harrowing austere complexities of ‘The Holy Bible’, the Manics have empowered, entertained, enraged, endured the worst and reached for the best.
‘Postcards From A Young Man’ may be their best yet. Or if that seems like heresy (and it even does to me), then let’s say it is right up there with their best. A very different record than, say, ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’ or ‘The Holy Bible’, it stands not in contradiction to those cold masterpieces but in concert with them. Defiantly, unapologetically bold and forthright and communicative, it makes the head swim with both the thrill of its tunes and its theories (always a heady Manics mix) and burns with that raging melancholia that has always been unique to them. As James Dean Bradfield says “We’ve always had it. If you look at the lyric to Motorcycle Emptiness, it could be sung in some cold Teutonic way. But we’ve never been that kind of band. We want that sense of uplift somehow. We still feel there’s an eloquence in screaming, that these feelings can make you feel good, they can empower you.” Nicky Wire adds, “Someone once said that most men only ever write two great novels and you end up repeating them. There are two versions of this band maybe. There’s the ‘Journal’ and ‘Bible’ version and then there’s this version. That over the top hysterical dignity, that flash of intelligence. There’s something glorious in celebrating what we really are. Our peers are gone. It’s up to us.”
The Manics still believe in the power of art to transform and liberate, and, devalued and traduced though it is, they still keep faith with their favoured corner of it, the mongrel infant called rock and roll. As passionate and engaged as they are with politics, art, poetry, philosophy, film, sport and literature, they still believe there is something important, privileged, noble even about the mass platform and potency of the rock band, whatever the naysayers and experts think. “It would never occur to me” says James “to comment on the economics of the art world or of publishing, I wouldn’t lecture someone who thatches roofs about their industry. And yet every news programme and business correspondent is always giving his expert opinion on the music business and how it’s finished. It drives you to write. This faint notion that you’re defending the art”
“When you look at most bands” says Nicky “By the time they get to their tenth album, people may still come to the shows but everyone knows that the albums have been rubbish for years. If you’re an ‘artist’ everyone goes to the Royal Festival Hall to see you and thinks it’s marvellous. But no-one listens to your new record. Well, that’s not good enough for us. From the moment we started, we wanted the biggest number of people to hear what we had to say. We want to hear these records on the radio. Everyone is talking about the death of the rock business. I don’t know. But if it is, this is a last shot of mass communication.”
‘Postcards From A Young Man’ was recorded in the Manics own studio in Cardiff with long time producer/collaborator Dave Eringa and mixed in LA with Chris Lord-Alge. The twelve tracks are as follows:
‘(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love’
A statement of intent. An epiphany. The sound of a group exulting in the essential glory of what they are. Lyrical, passionate, shamelessly melodic with a thrust and elegance and soaring chorus that recalls ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’.
Nick: “At our best, rage and melancholia becomes uplifting. ‘Your Love Alone Is Not Enough’ is a line from a suicide note. But we turn it into a world wide hit. Only we can do that.”
James: “I wanted it to have a hint of longing. And I wanted it to have that feeling that Gary McCallister had in the 2001 UEFA Cup Final for Liverpool. I may be 40, but I can still skin you. I love the Kings Of Leon records but they just stand there, Macca moved all over the place when we supported him. We want to buzz and fizz over. We want to invigorate.”
‘Postcards From A Young Man’
A beautiful, lilting hymn to the passing of time (“they may never be written or posted again”), the provisional nature of truth, the impermanence of everything and the dynamics of the power ballad. Under swelling strings, the songs thumping heartbeat beating a tattoo on the songs ribcage of Sean’s drums and Nicky’s bass. James solo is casually heartbreaking in its simplicity. The songs coda is almost Queen, if Queen had read Nietzsche’s aphorism and been a tenth as good as the Manic Street Preachers.
James: “I’ve sometimes had to keep quiet about my love of Queen (quite right too, SM) but this is me letting it show. It’s wanting to let your guard down and show another side. We’ve never been angry in a macho way. Yes, we’re from the Valleys. We love our sport and our Trade Unionism. But we’ve always had another side. Nicky and Richey always loved their make-up and their Kylie. Nick used to have this pink sign in his bedroom that said ‘Love’ and a funny, fluffy duvet. We’re at our best when we’re fifty per cent dumb and fifty per cent lofty pretension.”
Nicky: “I’ve kept all the postcards that Sean, James, Richey and my Mum sent me when I was at Uni. We were prolific communicators. Every time you got the post there’d be a bundle in there with a collage or a poster. It’s about nostalgia and youth, it’s sentimental but it’s real. And it’s a great Manicsy title. The albums working title was ‘It’s Not Love, Just The End Of War’ but this just suits it perfectly, like the Tim Roth image on the cover. We grew up with Made In Britain and King Of The Ghetto. It’s just very Manics.”
‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’
Stately, glorious and desperately sad (“remember you, stretched out in the sun…still and lonely as an old school photograph”) this is another duet in the grand, majestic tradition of those with Nina Persson, Traci Lords, and Dame Shirley Bassey. This time it’s long time hero Ian McCulloch. Fittingly too, as the songs epic, soulful nature combines Ocean Rain’s psychedelic Spector soundscapes with the pleading ardour of a gospel choir.
James: “My first gig was Echo And The Bunnymen at the Bristol Colston Hall with Richey. What I always loved about Mac was that he was very much of his background, very working-class, very brusque and a bit bluff and brusque, he also transcended that. He was mysterious, and flippant and cattier than Dorothy Parker. This is completely Nick’s song. I wish I’d written it.”
Nicky: “Given that it was James, Richey and Sean’s first gig, I think there’s something resplendent about the fact that he’s there singing on our tenth album. It’s about loss and the importance of grief. And I think the vocal we got out of Mac is extraordinary. I filmed him doing it and you can tell he’s digging something out of his soul. Mind you, he spent the previous three hours doing impressions”.
‘The Descent’ (Pages 1 & 2)
A song with the easy acoustic pop rock grace of George Harrison or Hunky Dory era Bowie or Mott circa All The Young Dudes. The chord run-downs are as sunnily familiar as childhood and then as sweetly surprising as a change in the weather. A tour bus song but with none of the hoary clichés, the tang of last night’s beer and sweaty socks and Spinal Tap DVDs that implies. This is a lovely, bitter-sweet echo of pop’s golden youth
Nicky: “Touring is pure enjoyment now. Its hard work but I really feel that sense of the dignity of labour. It’s mental refreshment; it’s broadening your horizons. This has really come in the last five years, since ‘Your Love Alone’ and how that’s opened doors for us from Croatia to Singapore. It’s a proper touring song, done in an hour in Vancouver. James had this tune on the tour bus, I had a poem. Ten minutes work, it all dovetailed beautifully and the track was done.”
James: “I’ve always been very dubious about jamming. Not much good ever comes of it. But this just worked. And it’s a nod to my first love, ELO.”
A medical condition whereby the body’s organs poison their own system and whose sufferers include Yukio Mishima (and to lesser extent Nicky Wire). Here though, it becomes a metaphor for a toxic, self-defeating social system. Perhaps the spikiest, artiest thing on the album, with a strange sonic architecture and a contribution from John Cale. It still ripples with muscle.
Nicky: “We knew that was one for JC, that feel of Ship Of Fools from Fear. We tried to marry that Bowie glam feel with a Neu! Beat. And there are some of the ideas in there from the book The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible Committee, which is a kind of update of the Situationist International for these times.”
James: “I wrote the tune it in studio with Sean and it was Nick’s idea to give it that driving Krautrock motorik beat.”
With its dreamy, almost MOR strains and its setting of strings, piano and heavenly chorus, this may be the gentlest and most reflective thing here. But the mood darkens and the clouds gather and the lyric is an angry denunciation of a political elite that betrayed the class that nurtured and created them. The oldest song on the record, it feels in some ways like the lyric holds its emotional core. Words and music are by Nicky Wire.
James: “As a singer, it’s interesting because there are a lot of words in it, a lot to pack in. It seems to me it’s a letter to your own political party, from someone leaving and feeling disenchanted, a kind of disappointed appeal to your own side, I think here the words were most important. It’s one of those songs where the vocal is kin.”
Nicky: “I’ve said it’s The Beatles on steroids. But it’s more Free As A Bird than Hey Jude, more Geoff Lynne than George Martin. And Pacific Ocean Blue – Dennis Wilson was a big influence. It’s not a difficult song to work out. It’s about the abandonment of the true working class by their own party, the nadir for me being when New Labour offered everyone a free laptop. That idea that free wifi and a Costa Coffee can lift the working class out of their poverty. So insulting, so metropolitan.”
Like Motorcycle Emptiness, Hazleton Avenue is a track whose strident, gorgeous, declamatory figure – James guitar bolstered by churning Roy Wood cellos – is the songs helical coil of DNA. It snares instantly and holds for the duration of a song about the almost guilty bliss (“please accept all my apologies”) of abandoning oneself to the moment, in this case a free afternoon in a fashionable district of Toronto.
Nicky: “I suppose the question here is, are you only truly yourself when you’re alone. It’s a philosophical question and one to which I don’t have the answer. But this is just a song about simplicity and the joy of coffee and magazines and a big comfy bed.”
James: “Nick and Sean had gone home from the studio one night and I came up with the riff. It’s a song about a consumerist heaven, a song wondering whether that’s such a bad life. I loved the lyric and its perverse freedom. So it needed an escapist Ziggy/Elton moment. I just liked the image of Nick, alone, just enjoying himself utterly.Which for Nick would be looking at stationery for five hours.”
‘I Think I’ve Found It’
Again, a song that begins with a beguiling flourish, a bitter-sweet, backwards glancing melody on the mandola, a Faces feel of woozy good vibes and an almost filmic sense of reverie. Imagine a figure walking in the foaming edge of the sea on a bright morning that echoes to the sound of gulls and you won’t be far wrong.
Nicky: “Written by James with a hangover after a stag do in Tenby. It’s a very James song, lovely and lilting, very ‘Ocean Spray’. The kind of lilting melancholy that puts a smile on your face. We’ve all had those moments.”
James: “When I was a kid, I’d written a fan letter to Mike Scott after staying up all one summer night listening to The Waterboys. I burned the edges so it would look ancient. I never got a reply but years later I was on a plane and I saw he was sitting just up from me so, haltingly, I went up and introduced myself. And he said “I got your letter”. He’d obviously read it and kept it and the name must have stuck. It really freaked me out. I became slightly haunted by it to be honest. So there’s something of that feel in here, of enjoying the arbitrary nature of life.”
‘A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun’
Duff McKagan, bassist of Guns N’ Roses, guests on a track that moves with the easy FM rock shuffle of Fleetwood Mac’s Go Your Own Way. (There’s even a Lindsey Buckingham homage four bar solo). But the sentiments are distinctly un-Californian. The song was originally called the Virtual (the new title is taken from J.G.Ballard) and offers us the gleaming, hi-tech nightmare of an internet culture where “we’ve all become our personal Gods”, where self-obsession and narcissism, crudity and hatred have taken the place of real human contact and feeling.
Nicky: “It’s based a little on the writings of John Gray (The LSE professor, not the bloke who write Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus S.M) I suppose what he does is philosophy for the masses, which is no bad thing. I’ve done a bit of Kantian ethics at Uni. I found it impossible to understand. I think what John Gray is saying essentially is we’re busier than we have ever been but deep down, we know everything we do is useless. And the Internet is a world where you can be as vile as you like about people and there is no consequence, no comeback.”
James: “The notion of a sense of community through technology makes no sense. Most of what goes on on the internet seems to me to be cowardly peacocking. I know I sound like a grumpy old man when I say that I’ve never turned on a computer in my life and never sent an e-mail but what do I need it for? I got my shops, my bookies, my pubs. I talk to my newsagent for twenty minutes every day about cricket. I’ve learned about records in record shops and cuts of meat at the butchers. So you have a device where you can look at a picture of my front door on Google Earth. What does that give you?”
‘All We Make Is Entertainment’
The shameful decline and neglect of British industry set to a hyper-perfect, uber-Manics kind of super-rock, gleaming, adamantine, balletic, with echoes of Slash, Stuart Adamson and Bill Nelson in the guitar architecture.
Nicky: “The ultimate irony of our times is that our nationalised industry is the banks. Hilarious. Terrible. We make the best chocolate in the world – forget the Belgians – and we let Cadbury’s be bought out by Kraft, makers of congealed, tasteless American crap. And the reason? Oh, because we can’t interfere with the free markets, can we? Well, you did for fucking Northern Rock, didn’t you? You lie to us and you make the rules up as you go along.”
James: “I wanted the music to have the slight feel of a super-slick, hopeless game show. Like a great, happy empty-headed behemoth. We played a festival in Bergen and everywhere there was stuff that had been made in Bergen. We make nothing. All we make is entertainment, and we can’t even do that anymore.
‘The Future Has Always Been Here Forever’
Sung by Nick, a nimble rock number with a hint of Marc Bolan just as he was swapping his pixie boots for his platforms and his acoustic for his Les Paul. There’s a perfect, miniature Electric Warrior solo from James and a plaintive trumpet duet from Sean.
Nicky: “He’s such a lovely trumpet player and we wanted some of it on cos it sounds great – he’d been listening to Fela Kuti and Hugh Masekela – and it’s a kind of lucky charm with reference to Kevin Carter. It’s The June Brides played by the Rolling Stones. And I think I’m singing better than I have done before.”
James: “The sound of the band that we could have been, and shows Nick’s Wilco obsession coming to the fore. The combination of Nick’s vocals and Sean’s trumpet articulate things I can’t achieve as a musician.”
‘Don't Be Evil'
A rousing finale. The Manics in full ragged rock glory, juxtaposed with a title taken from Google’s vapid, meaningless corporate mission statement.
James: “It’s a rehearsal song really, with a solo that just came out on the spot. In general, with this album, it’s been a privilege to write music to some of Nick’s lyrics. I think since the moment he came up with “Libraries gave us power”, he’s just got better and better, refined and refined, like a laser.”
Nick: “It’s hard to write about this stuff without sounding like a boring old man. And with Sean it couldn’t be further from truth. He’s a tech pioneer, though mainly it’s the challenge of making it work! But you have to cast a critical eye on things be it technology or your own class. I don’t want citizen journalism or blogs; I want to read people who know what they’re talking about. I want people to be qualified. Allows you to be as disgusting as you want with no comeback. As someone with massive gob who has shot his mouth off and got in trouble, I resent that! Its taken away people’s conscience. If there were a thought police, I’d be a lifer”
Class, friendship, political betrayal, the comforting lies of technology, the joys of solitude, love, travel, hangovers, the coastline, magazines, postcards, all the important stuff. Ten albums into their career, the Manic Street Preachers have made a record that swaggers with confidence, bristles with rage, and glows with tenderness and pride. Alone amongst their peers, they are still questing and unsatisfied, but driven and purposeful. Like Henry Moore, they know that hunger and desire, restlessness, intellectual curiosity, aspiration, anger, enthusiasm, wonder, rage and a refusal to accept the second-rate banalities of our world’s amusements is what distinguishes the real thing from the ersatz and the empty. Ten albums. All with the same label, the same manager, the same press organisation. James and Nicky have known each other since they were five. They began writing songs about the miners strike when they were 15. These continuities and constants would have embarrassed the headstrong, sarky, endlessly entertaining demagogues that came out of Blackwood in white jeans and drinking Babycham in 1990. Now they are happy with what they are, because what they are is as relevant and bracing and exciting as they have ever been. To paraphrase two of their poet countrymen, The Thomas’s – Dylan and RS – the force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives their green age. There is still no truce with the furies.
Stuart Maconie is a writer and broadcaster.