Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Album Review - Postcards From A Young Man by Manic Street Preachers

The new album by one of my favorite bands, Manic Street Preachers, is out now. It's called Postcards From A Young Man.

While it may be overly simplistic to say so, the Manics have essentially put out two types of music over the past 20 years. One is overtly pop-rock and meant to engage mass tastes, and the other is darker, more enraged and meant - I think - to challenge mass tastes. Both types are intelligent, articulate, passionate and a cut above what passes for rock music these days. Seeing them live in Seattle last year was truly a great experience.

Postcards is more in the pop vein after the magnificent Journal for Plague Lovers. In fact, lead singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield describes the new record as "one last chance at mass communication."After giving it a listen, I would agree that the music is more major chord, soaring, pop hook, string embellished and tunefully written in a way designed to appeal to the common ear. But, make no mistake, the lyrics - mostly written by bassist Nicky Wire - are as always thought provoking and challenging with themes of society's downfall, the ills of self indulgence, moving forward despite doubts and nostalgia for the more sure minded days of youth.

I tend to like the darker, noisier and aggressive Manic's efforts (The Holy Bible, Journal for Plague Lovers, Know Your Enemy, Generation Terrorist), but the new one is a strong outing from the guys from Wales.

Look, you like U2? Queen? The Clash? Echo and the Bunnymen? How about The Replacements or Rush? If you do, I think you should check out Postcards.

If that's not enough, below is a recent picture of the band, and my rundown of the songs on the new record for your consideration. Best listened to with the volume up high of course...

  • It's Not War, Just The End of Love - "You pay your dues, and I'll pay mine." A great album opener. This is a rockin' tune the likes of which the Manics specialize replete with challenging lyrics, soaring choruses and strings. Opening with a deliberate guitar lead-in and those strings, James Dean Bradfield fires off the first shot of the record with the line, "To feel forgiveness, you gotta forgive..." you know you're in for a corker. From there the song explodes into pop rock goodness with the chorus (title of the song) that includes the line "...its never enough, it's never enough." For my humble tastes, this is about as good as it gets for modern pop-oriented rock. (*****)
  • Postcards From A Young Man - "This world will not impose it's will." This song deals with looking back from the perspective of a wiser, older and a bit more cynical person on the idealism, naivete and passion felt in younger times - those days seeming like "postcards from a young man" and perhaps never to be "posted again." Toward the end, Bradfield sings out for both the young and old versions of the protagonist - and certainly for you, the listener - of the song, "This world will not impose its will, I will never give up and I will never give in." Compelling stuff when paired with a mid-tempo beat that builds to a crescendo toward the end and that highlights both the epic backing sound the band have arranged for this album, along with Bradfields expert guitar work. Simply one of the best tracks on this album. (****)
  • Some Kind of Nothingness - "Remember you, stretched out in the sun." Featuring a guest vocal by Echo and the Bunnymen main man Ian McCullough, this starts as a slowdown song compared to the first two numbers. Touching on nostalgia, the simplicity and safety of not meeting expectations, the tune slowly builds as the singers contemplate foregone conclusions and that perhaps, in the end, "death is our only friend." Eventually, roiling and ecstasy-inducing backing vocals from an unseen choir kick in and build...upping the ante to a song-ending celebration about eventually getting what you want when your "final search for truth as stopped." (***)
  • The Descent (Pages 1 & 2) - "Do I have the courage of the books I've read?" This quirky tune jauntily seems to be addressing doubts that people may have even after they've taken precautions in their lives and eliminated issues such as phobias and paranoia. Asking questions such as, "will my kingdom fade away?" and "have my expectations gone too far again?" the singer also acknowledges obvious things in odd ways like "my baby teeth are gone into a better place I have yet to go" and for sure that there is a challenge to contend with the "the winner takes it all" mentality in society - all things that pose doubts to someone trying to move ahead in life. Ultimately, we're learning here that these doubts and these questions are "the last descent" that the singer is going to experience and contemplate before a better (or is it worse?) fate unfolds. (***)
  • Hazelton Avenue - "Yes I worship a the alter, I am a happy consumer." Back on the pop rock tip, this one is a winner in my book. To me, it's about a few good or interesting things associated with "Hazelton Avenue," (a street in Toronto, Canada) such as the numbness but simple joy of consumerism on this avenue, as well as the comfort of a bed and bold thoughts of writing a best seller in a loft overlooking the street. Again, strings play a significant role in this song along with Bradfield's guitar to create a comfortable texture for the song's words. (***)
  • Auto Intoxication "A new economy embraces the ruins." This is a musically exciting song with challenging lyrics. It seems to be addressing the fact that as much as we all talk about wanting to succeed and do well, we ourselves and the society we live in keep distracting us or pulling the rug out from underneath us - or as the Manics put it, a sort of "auto-intoxication." With lines like, "Drained of delusion and buried in debt, how the hell do we find each other suffering auto intoxication," you get the drift. Musically, the song starts at a mid-temp chug with the versus delivered diligently across strumming guitars and well placed fills. Then, right in the middle, like a grenade suddenly going off in a field of daisies on a sunny afternoon, the Manics pull the pins and hurl their bombs as they rip into the chorus where we get the information that as bad as things are, at least you've survived, "but disaster isn't coming, it's already arrived. I am so lucky, I think that I survived." All distorted guitars and Bradfield yelling at the top of his lungs.  Boom! We're at war, the combat happening all around! Juxtaposed with the rest of the song and, indeed, the rest of the album, this one's a stand out to me. (****)
  • Golden Platitudes "Why colonize the moon when every different kind of desperation exists?" This song is quite straight forward. Where did our assured, youthful and all-knowing view of the world go? What happened to those "golden platitudes?" This is the one song on the album that starts and maintains a slower, mellower pace all the way through, accompanied by those strings and choir backing vocals. (**)
  • I Think I Found It "I think I found it, and I think I love it." Here again we are challenged by the lyrics. Certainly a song with this title and main chorus line would be about love, right? Well...probably that is the case here. Following an intro section featuring the sounds of tightly strummed mandola that might be more at home in an ad for an Italian restaurant, we transition into more traditional mode to hear about a person who has found what he was looking for (buried and hiding in the dirt) and once liberated from that place walks freely to the sea, enjoys some "days of wine and roses," and - despite some blunt words and letters - is happy to the ask someone else to "live with me through the threads of our lives." Delivered in a jubilant and upbeat tune featuring hammering guitar breaks in the chorus, this one gets you back on track and in an upbeat mood after the previous song on the album. (***)
  • A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun - "A billion lies becoming the truth." With a head of steam now built back up with the previous song, A Billion Balconies kicks it into high gear. This very squarely is a song about the ills of modern society - the denial of humanity in a world obsessed with instant gratification. Under a bed of ominous guitar, it starts out with anger over how people are now so enamored with themselves, technology, celebrity, pop-culture and other self-indulgent crap. The other main verse expresses how people nowadays have "found expression for our hate without any kind of consequence," and points out that, well, "who needs patients when all our pleasures are virtual." The chorus uses the imagery of "a billion balconies facing the sun," as a beautiful setting, but then informs the listener that inside those dwellings with all those balconies featuring a spectacular view are people with their faces "turned to the screen" - uninterested in reality and all to susceptible too prettily packaged lies. Musically, this one's a rocker with brooding versus and bright, blazing choruses that hammer the points home. Together with It's Not War and Auto-Intoxication make up the three stonking rock songs on this album. (*****)
  • All We Make Is Entertainment "Pointless jobs lead to pointless lives." Under a buildup of thumping drums, we get "1-2-3" and then launch into the song where we first learn that "I'm no longer preaching to the converted, that congregation as long ago deserted" - a line implying that the Manics' audience of 1992 or 1994 is no longer satisfied with the band's more pop inclinations. Which is a perfect start for this song as most of it is a long-arrived at admission that, guess what, all we do here in the Manic Street Preachers - at the end of the day - is make entertainment. This is a good thing, but simply "part of the grand delusion." This last little bit does then give the band license at the end to reverse field a bit on the theme for indeed...the all-encompassing grand delusion of entertainment is a major societal ill. Strip that away and you get the fact that millions are trapped in "pointless jobs" that lead to "pointless lives." Musically, this song is big, bombastic with clever guitar (especially right at the end) and dynamic vocal delivery by Bradfield. (*****)
  • The Future Has Been Here 4 Ever "Like Godfather Three, I never can escape." Bassist Nicky Wire takes lead vocal on this song, which also incorporates a backing choir, trumpet from drummer Sean More and - how about some cowbell? The lyric is about not fearing the future, addressing it head on as you get older - even if you have doubts or concerns about doing so.  (***)
  • Don't Be Evil "Fool the world with all your own importance." A chiming, driving guitar riff opens this rocking tune up. Built on a basic power chord progression, the music here is both simple, but classic and motors through the entire song - peaking with the chorus lines. Not so much with the lyrics. Stuff to ponder here. Over the top of the tune, we get Bradfield telling us that in a world where "the lines have been blurred," and "sickos and bullies praise your name," that today one doesn't have to be overtly "evil," but merely "corporate" to get dirty deeds done...and of course implying that "being corporate" is just another, more palatable form of being "evil." But the Manics also seem to be commenting not on the classic cliche of "corporate" when calling this out, but more the young, seemingly hip, seemingly anti-corporate corporate types of the Facebook generation. In attempts to blow their cover, Nicky Wire's lyric chastises this type with "as corporate as the suits you won't wear, as stupid as the jeans you tear" among other things. Finally, along with avoiding the baggage of being seen as evil by acting neo-corporate, this song suggests that such a maneuver also opens the door for a person indulge their own narcissism - "your own movie star." In the end, despite the complexities, the name of the song and clear chorus says it all. In whatever form you can think of, very simply - don't be evil. (***)
Postcards From A Young Man is not yet out in the U.S., but I assume it will be at some point. For now, you can get it by ordering directly from the store on band's web site HERE. A suggestion for those interested in hearing some of the record before considering whether or not to buy would be to switch to the UK iTunes site and find the record there and sample it. Sure, you can't buy it from the U.S., but you can hear parts.

Review written by Marc Osborn. Not for re-publication without written permission.

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