There’s a bad old adage that goes “The Welsh don’t die, they just DRAG ON!” (Look up a picture of the Welsh flag, allow yourself a groan, then proceed to read on). The Manic Street Preachers were one Welsh band that went into their career with just one goal in mind: make one album and then vanish. And to their credit, the debut album they made was part White Album and part commercial suicide. Generation Terrorists was 18 tracks pumped full of Slash-esque lead guitars slicing through some heavily disenfranchised political punk rock, certainly not something guaranteed to be a financial slam-dunk in the year of 1992. But the band held such promise, such momentum in their writing that they had to make a second album. Then the groundbreaking third album that brought them a wider audience on both sides of the Atlantic, The Holy Bible. After that, they couldn’t stop. Even when founding member Richey Edwards went missing, who is still missing and has been “presumed dead” by the authorities, the Manics just couldn’t bring themselves to break apart what they had started. So more than 20 years after their first album, the Manic Street Preachers solider on. And they sure as hell aren’t dragging.
You see, Rewind the Film is the kind of album a band can make only after traveling a very bumpy road. It’s not easy maintaining a certain amount of respect from music fans after such a promising start. They’ve been accused on neutering their sound on This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours and Lifeblood by those who bristle at the sound of the word “mature”. Critics bitched that Know Your Enemy had too many songs, boxes of their 2005 EP God Save the Manics were stolen, bassist Nicky Wire kept opening his mouth and insulting people and the Edwards family had to legally say goodbye to their son. Considering everything that has happened, this newfound sense of purpose in middle age on Rewind the Film doesn’t seem to be such a far-fetched idea. If you transported a Manics fan from 1994 to now, listening to Rewind the Film would be too much of a shock for them to process. But traveling alongside the band during their existence gives you the privilege of perspective. There are those who may still moan about “aging” and “maturing” punk rockers loosing their edge, but that’s only one meager way to look at it. I choose to look at it this way: after 20 years in the business, here’s a band that still has the ability to surprise you.
The hallmarks of the Manic Street Preachers’s sound haven’t gone missing, they’ve just morphed into different forms. James Dead Bradfield still sings with conviction, but this time he’s not shouting at the machine. Instead his forceful vocals are a personal peek into the tribulations faced by him, Wire and drummer Sean Moore over the years. And Bradfield still plays the guitar like a bat out of hell, but he left his electric in its case for most of Rewind the Film. The album comes with sobering purpose but Wire’s lyrics favor internal struggles. Don’t worry, he’s still cynical. The album starts like this; “I don’t want my children to grow up like me / It’s just so destroying, it’s a mocking disease / A wasting disease.” And “This Sullen Welsh Heart” that he’s describing? At the end of each chorus he admits “The hating half of me / Has won the battle easily.” It’s not a proud moment for our narrator, which is why it’s unfortunate that the Manics invited Lucy Rose to sing it as a duet with Bradfield. Her voice is flat, disaffected and renders the words impotent. The demo of “This Sullen Welsh Heart”, included on the deluxe release of the album, makes this naked song even purer. The proof is in Bradfield’s inconsistent tug on his nylon strings and the first draft of the lyrics referring to “a fucking disease.”
But one of the album’s many highlights is a track that features another guest vocalist. Former Pulp guitarist and heavily sought-after session musician Richard Hawley sings the title track. In his hands, the three words “Rewind the Film” couldn’t sound any more somber and contemplative. Sure, Hawley is only 46 as of this writing, but he takes on the song like a shrunken man looking down the barrel of his golden years, sitting on his porch while watching his grandkids play in the front yard, wondering where the time went but is still fond of every moment that passed. Speaking only for myself, asking to have your life replayed for you is an invitation for a big fat wince. But our man doesn’t see it that way. “I’d love to see my joy, my friends” he beckons, unafraid of wanting “the world to see it all.” The music resembles nothing from prior Manics albums, like the loungey bass lines and the syrupy ‘60s strings. The song’s dynamics build to the halfway point where James Dean Bradfield lets loose a rapid-fire acoustic 12-string lick rarely heard on rock albums. The entrance of his voice on the bridge brushes away the sweet melancholy established by Hawley. When he sings “Let me hide under the sheets / And celebrate the boredom,” it almost sounds like Bradfield was caught building a fort on his hotel bed. And yes, he still places emphasis on the wrong syllables of certain words. Face it linguists, he’ll never give that up.
The tranquil sounds of Rewind the Film can probably be attributed in part to producer Alex Silva. There is a pulsing, urban hum that propels the swift but quiet “(I Miss the) Tokyo Skyline” missing from the song’s demo. Saw what you will about burbling synths and how non-edgy they are, but it’s icing on the cake when you long for the city. I mean, this guy misses so much. Emptiness, silence, non-communication and smog, there’s a lot to be said for sniffing out that silver lining; “Feeling like an alien is so much fun.” The touches added by Loz Williams and Alex Silva are impressive, but they’re even more impressive when you consider that Silva helped engineer the band’s explosive third album The Holy Bible. Here’s a guy who had to break up with his girlfriend because of the intense sessions with the band, only to work with them again, helping to make them sound beautiful instead 19 years later.
The rest of Rewind the Film is no less surprising and satisfying. They let Cate Le Bon sing the lion’s share of “4 Lonely Roads”, a sometimes odd, sometimes sighing Britpop pastiche. Too bad there’s so much reverb on her voice, I can only make out a few of the words. “Anthem for a Lost Cause”, a do-wop waltz, actually has some of that electric guitar that’s so scarce on the album. The horns of your parents A&M collection do more than make an appearance, they practically drive a song like “Show Me the Wonder”. A lone trumpet announces the closer “30-Year War”. “It’s the longest running joke / In history / To kill the working classes / In the name of liberty.” Hey, there are the old Manics! Pissed off and electric. But what’s the electro beat gliding along in the mix? And why do they have a (mostly) instrumental track preceding it? No piss, no vinegar, all mood!
Yes, Rewind the Film is full of things that an ardent fan of Gold Against the Soul would never understand. An album named Futurology is supposed to follow in 2014, a louder, angrier counterpart to this album. But these fans must remember that the bassist adopted his last name from a band that started off as a punk outfit and decided to anger their crowd by going off on unpredictable tangents and doing whatever they felt like doing. When it comes to attitude, you have to admit that there’s still something “punk” about that. As Bradfield sings in “Show Me the Wonder”, “Is it too much to ask / to disbelieve in everything?” Nope, disbelieve in what you want. Disbelieve in fast and loud. Disbelieve in melancholy. Disbelieve in anything in between. That’s what keeps bands chugging for so long, instead of just dragging on.