Friday, October 4, 2013

Manic Street Preachers Go Acoustic with New Album Rewind the Film

A few years ago, Manic Street Preachers put out a fiery album called Journal for Plague Lovers that, in my mind, truly brought that band back to life as a vital, important force in rock and roll. You can read my review of that album HERE.

Cover of Rewind the Film
Well, flash forward to last month. They did it again. Vocalist/guitarist James Dean Bradfield, bassist/vocalist Nicky Wire and drummer Sean Moore have delivered the goods anew. But this time it isn't aggressive, electric rock and roll with lacerating lyrics on all types of political and social issues. Nope. The new album, called Rewind the Film, is a distinctly subdued, personal and introspective affair that touches on feelings and ideas around getting older, nostalgia, missing friends and staying vital despite the inevitable changes life doles out. And, its mostly acoustic with warm guitars, horns, strings and subtle percussion creating the sound. And it's good.

Actually, "genius" in my book. No, seriously. This is a great album and proof positive that smart, adult music is still out there and comes in many forms. Throw in a couple guest lead vocals and a song sung by Wire and you've got something diverse and special. And good for the Manics for pulling back from their usual sound of the last few years to try something different.

Here is my song-by-song review of the album. At the end, I've made some recommendations on what you may want to get from Rewind the Film.

This Sullen Welsh Heart. "The hating half of me has won the battle easily." This is an appropriate song to start the album, not only because it points the way forward to the tone, texture and sound present on the rest of the songs but also because of its subject. Pointedly, this song is about growing older, recognizing some of the traps you might have fallen into and understanding that as great as days gone by may have been, you are not the same as you were back then. People change and you've changed. Introspection for the 40-something crowd if  you will.

Hopefully those changes are in the whole for the better, and also hopefully - despite your mellowing and evolution - there is some little element or spark left that fuels your now more mature self in an older and wiser way. Or at least that's what I get out of the song.

Vocally, the song features a duet with guest singer Lucy Rose who delivers a very touching female voice to James Dean Bradfield's male lead - making the point that the subject of the song is equally applicable to women as it is to men.

A contemplative acoustic guitar and distant synth or strings are the only music to accompany those voices, ensuring you are definitively going to hear the words and ponder their meaning. Put it all together and however subdued the song is, it's a highlight of the album right off the bat.

Show Me the Wonder. "There is no threat just an invitation, a sense of belonging, a sense of inspiration." By far, this is the most upbeat, pop-y and toe tapping song on Rewind the Film and compared to the prior song it is an explosion of sound. Bright and catchy horns, upbeat acoustic guitar strum and belted out vocals all combine to make this one a joy to listen to. Great stuff!

Thematically, the song seems to be commenting on just how unpredictable the world can be - in a good way. Isn't it a "wonder" the way certain things work or don't? And isn't it fun to embrace that uncertainty? Some things are just not understandable on a rational level.

Another thing about this song is that the video is really good. For all their musical talent, the Manic Street Preachers have a long history of putting out videos that just come across as lame to me. Not this time. Check out "Show Me the Wonder" by clicking HERE. It's a fun romp that pulls on nostalgia and revels in budding love. I think you'll like it.

Promo Shot of the Manic Street Preachers - 2013. L to R: Sean Moore, Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield
Rewind the Film. "Rewind the film again. I'd love to see my joy, my friends." No matter how old you are, most of us think from time to time how it might be nice to go back and re-live some of the best moments of our lives - to embrace youth once again, feel things again for the first time or just "listen to your old records." And this is the topic of this song. Sung by guest vocalist Richard Hawley, this is a narrative as told by an old man wishing he could go back and experience life again. Normal singer Bradfield belts out the chorus lines to punctuate the point even further.

Musically, this is one of the more complex songs on the album. Articulate acoustic guitar, synth, strings, drums and subdued bass all combine to create a rich backing for Hawley's "old man" voice. Also, the video for "Rewind the Film" is touching - so, the Manics are two-for-two on videos! You can see it HERE.

Builder of Routines. "How I hate middle age, in between acceptance and rage." Featuring verses with a sparse James Dean Bradfield vocal backed by muted music box chime and strummy choruses and middle-eight sections, this song is a pretty straight forward comment by the band about getting older, their struggle to continue on as a vital musical force and not relying on their storied, glorious and tragic past.

To that end and to the point, there appear to be a couple of clear references to former band member, lyricist and stylist Richey Edwards in the choruses. Edwards of course famously went missing in 1995 never to be seen again and is presumed dead. Bradfield sings "only in you do we see ourselves," which I take as a comment on how profound Edwards was to the band and how the band views its ideal but now unattainable selves as vital, youthful and fueled by rage.

The other reference is the line, "so sick and tiered of being 4 real, only the fiction has appeal," which is the other side of the story. Guess what? The other three in the band have gotten older and had to try and live up to the fury of the Edwards years. The line references the "4 Real" that Edwards carved into his arm with a razor in front of a journalist when the writer questioned his and the band's sincerity. The fact is that the surviving band members have had to live up to that all these years - so much so that now that is not possible...with only the "fiction" of those times is the only appealing part of it any more.

The Manics Perform Acoustically on BBC2
4 Lonely Roads. "And if we can, we must hold our heads up." This song is sung by guest vocalist Cate Le Bon. I assume the Manics chose her to sing this one because a) she's from Wales like they are, and b) her haunting voice is a match for the feeling of this song.

Lyrically, this one appears to deal with the need to rise above difficult times with love. There are many lonely roads that we all follow at times (four of them? could be for all I know) and sometimes you just have to walk those roads so to speak to get to a better place...a place where, as the song says, "darker Hell stood up on high, then disappeared." And at the end of one of those lonely roads, what does a traveler learn? That "if we can, we must hold our heads up...a little love."

Musically, Le Bon's lilty voice is an asset against the subdued but enjoyable little mid-paced melody. I'd also add that this is the third song out of the four to start the album where the music definitely takes a back seat to the vocal and lyrical content. Don't get me wrong, nice music here and very complimentary for the vocal. But, for a band that has built so much reputation on bombast and big, thematic hooks and fireworks, this song and others on Rewind the Film really show a change...and in my book a great new direction.

(I Miss the) Tokyo Skyline. "Feeling like an alien is so much fun." From comments I've read by the band about this song, it's really an homage to the wonderful time they had on their first visit to Tokyo back in the early 1990s when they filmed their video for Motorcycle Emptiness.

According to the lyrics, the feeling of being totally alien in a foreign land and the almost universal inability to communicate with the people is appealing to James, Nicky and Sean. Placed in the middle of such technical wonder and a massive city filled with people...but yet not able to communicate. Beautiful isolation in the midst of millions. So very Manics.

I love how the Japanese sounding violin complements soothing electronic waves that begin this song - a nice contrast between people's perception of traditional Japan and modern Japan. After that, the music serves once again as a nice, clever but subdued background for the vocal delivery - this time back to Bradfield.

Anthem for a Lost Cause. "So it seems that every song is now just one last chance." Acoustic guitar opens this one up with strings and horns joining, then Bradfield's voice. The music takes a step up in the mix and importance in this song compared to earlier numbers on this album. More pronounced are the horns and guitar, the pace picks up a little and we hear a few crescendos as the voice hits its emotional peak in the choruses.

The theme of the song seems to be a lament over something lost - a love, a career, a battle of some sort. Something that was once "a glittering prize" is now just ashes. Is this the Manics commenting in a morose way about their past career and inability (or desire) to "kick out the jams" with the fury of days gone by? Or, is it more a more universal idea about how loss hurts and at some point becomes a lost cause. I think it may be some of both.

As Holy as the Soil. "Would it be that hard, just for once, we could save the world." Here we have song that's rare on two counts. First, it's sung by bassist Nicky Wire and not normal singer Bradfield. Second, unlike most other songs sung by Wire, this one sounds really good. His monotone talk-sing style has evolved since he first took on a clear lead vocal years ago on "Wattsville Blues" off their album Know Your Enemy.

Piano and acoustic guitar introduce Nicky's now more tuneful, but still unconventional, voice. Horns soon join in as flourishes, and Bradfield chips in singing on the chorus as drums and guitar kick in together in a deliberate beat. Later in the song, the horns are back as more substantial backing. A nice touch to build the song.

Now, as for the meaning of the song, well, Wire's lyrics describe a number of things - people, places, feelings, things...even the Roman "as holy as" and then transitions into a statement of "I love you so will you please come home." He is saying as holy as those things are, so too is love for the person he is singing to.

It could be about brotherly love for missing band member Edwards and the sad truth that it would be great for him to be there with them now, but knowing he never will. Or, the song could be more general about the longing for the return of a love currently gone or somewhere else. Either way, a surprise tune on the album.

3 Ways to See Despair. "There are three ways to see despair, and I've seen them all I'm scared to say." This is a minor chord, downbeat drudge that's really unlike the other songs on Rewind the Film. From comments I've read by Nicky Wire, it's about how things once great and promising sometimes turn into something tragic. This is a similar theme to "Anthem for a Lost Cause," but that song delivers the goods in a more appealing and interesting way. I might not be listening to "3 Ways..." very often.

Running Out of Fantasy. "My obsession with change has bled me dry." From the sludgy, slowness of the last song, "Running Out of Fantasy" re-establishes tunefulness and melody to the album. Whew. Very simply, the song is about losing one's sense of wonder and innocence as one gets older and experiences the often all-too-cruel world. Musically, we're back to acoustic guitar, strings, a little piano and Bradfied's voice - and this is great. A very nice delivery and quite listenable.

Manobier. This is an instrumental with the only vocals appearing as background toward the end. It's an atmospheric tune that opens with a distinct acoustic guitar riff and builds up into a "chorus" of spooky synth sounds. And what you may ask is a Manobier? I didn't know, so I looked it up. It's a coastal village in Wales. OK, so that's not surprising given where the Manics are from.

30 Year War. "Its the longest running joke in history, kill the working class in the name of liberty." If the start of Rewind the Film was a soft, melancholy personal introspection about getting older, then the last song is a spikey salvo of social commentary.

The Manics have always been a political band, commenting in songs on things they dislike in modern political landscape or referencing things they do like - or find ironic - from history. "The 30 Year War" is just such a song and by far the most political track on the album...perhaps pointing the way their next album, out in early 2014 and to be called Futurology, will head.

The "war" referred to here is the three decade long slide into conservative politics and corporatism in the UK in particular, but I think the message works for the U.S. too. The notion that convincing the working class that it is their best interest to vote for politicians who will enrich the already rich while simultaneously destroying the very institutions that keep the working class educated and employed is clearly a point of scorn. All the "Eton scum" graduating into "front bench" MPs in the British Parliament to ensure that "the old boy network has won the war again."

Also, there's some commentary in the song about cultural elitism through the part of the song that talks about putting away "Lowery's paintings" because he (a British artists in the mid-20th Century) refused a Knighthood from the Queen.

Against this landscape of right wing and upper class domination, the lyric then moves in an ominous direction with the line repeated "I ask you what is to be done?" This clearly references Lenin and the potential of revolution.

Yes indeed, a whiff of revolution to leave you thinking - about the point of the song, about the state of our world and about what might be coming next from the surprising Manic Street Preachers.

What To Get
Show Me the Wonder, This Sullen Welsh Heart, Builder of Routines, 30 Years War

Want To Try More?
Rewind the Film, Tokyo Skyline, Anthem for a Lost Cause, 4 Lonely Roads, Running Out of Fantasy

Might Not Be Your Cup of Tea
Manobeir, 3 Ways to See Dispair, As Holy As the Soil

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