[23 July 2007]
Back in 2001, when the Manic Street Preachers issued their sixth album, Know Your Enemy, it appeared the once glorious Welsh band of socialist alternative rockers might be ready to be put out to pasture. Stylistically scattered, its one constant theme was that it was over-written and inaccessible. Fortunately, that album’s follow-up, 2004’s suprisingly slick-yet-appealing Lifeblood, found the band headed back in the right direction, at least melodically. Perhaps the death knell had been rung too soon?
I used the word “death”, and here I am writing about Manic Street Preachers, so I suppose I’m compelled to recap the tragedy and the glory of the group in the ‘90s. If you know this story already, raise your hand. All right—you, you, and you in the back—you can all head to the next paragraph. For the rest of you: The band that is now a trio was once a quartet. Along with drummer Sean Moore, bassist Nicky Wire, and singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield, a troubled young man named Richey James once played guitar and wrote intense, dark, and political lyrics for the Manics. In 1995, after the group’s critically lauded third album, The Holy Bible, James committed suicide by jumping from a bridge (evidently, since no body was found). The band soldiered on without him, perhaps even hitting their peak with 1996’s Everything Must Go (which featured a mix of leftover James lyrics along with contributions from Wire, who subsequently took over that role). 1998’s This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, their lone UK #1 album, was only slightly less compelling than their mid-‘90s apex.
With Send Away the Tigers, the Welsh rockers regain those glory days of the previous decade. In a move that seems ridiculously obvious and yet shockingly evolved, the Manics realized they’d been off their A game, so they went back and listened to their really good old albums: Everything Must Go and even their raucous debut, 1992’s Generation Terrorists. Now, why don’t more artists try this approach? Too many acts seem to believe that reviewing their earlier work is a sign of weakness. Or maybe they think they’re just gotten too old to rock like they used to. Well, the reinvigorated Manic Street Preachers of 2007 sound as enthused, engaged, and ready to rumble as they have in nearly a decade.
“This one’s for the freaks / For you’re so beautiful.” This couplet, which opens the driving, striving, and explodingly excellent “Underdogs”, seems to be a promise to the band’s fans. To all you weirdos who have stuck with ‘em, here is your reward. As great as that song is, lead single “Your Love Alone Is Not Enough” is even better. In a duet with Nina Persson (the honey-throated singer from the Cardigans), Bradfield’s soaring voice and the band’s Springsteen-like anthemic playing turn Wire’s bitter ode to lonely togetherness into the kind of heavenly power ballad you’d be tempted to include on a mix for a new love… until you realized just how hopeless the lyrical sentiment is. Still, the awesome positiveness of the music wins in the end, turning a downtrodden set of words into a song that inspires full-volume sing-alongs.
Really, the same could be said for all of Send Away the Tigers. Even “The Second Great Depression” is incredibly un-depressing. Bradfield is singing about a serious mental illness that “stuck around and lingered” and “surrounded [him] and conquered”, but the music would punch a whole through any raincloud. These blasting beams of sunlight are everywhere on this album. In the fast-chugging and bluesy “Imperial Bodybags” we find “children wrapped in home-made flags”, but, instrumentally, it’s the perfect song for sunny days and highway driving. The darkest sounding track on the album turns out to be a hidden cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”. Raw and loose, it’s a powerful closer to a powerfully infectious record.
This is a band playing to its strengths. Bradfield has a huge and irrepressible voice that, in the wrong schlocky setting, would have him coming across like another Paul Young or George Michael. Wire, on the other hand, is a self-proclaimed nihilist. What should be an odd couple is actually a match made in heaven, the pair’s artistic powers proving complementary. On Send Away the Tigers, they’ve rediscovered just how well their tandem of talents can work together, creating their best album of the 2000s and one that is nearly as good as their mid-‘90s peak. Not just “for the freaks”, this is a Manics album everyone should love.