Welsh heavyweights' tenth album is a mixed bag filled with John Cale, gospel choirs, Duff McKagan, mammoth choruses, Ian McCulloch, and the obligatory literary references. At least a few of these elements actually work.
Manic Street Preachers are an infuriating band to love, particularly for Americans. Hewing a sound more closely related to US guitar rock of the '80's while their British peers used a Kinks blueprint to charm the masses, the band only touched a scattershot few. When the Manics -- as us fans so endearingly call them -- switched over to a heavier version of post-punk, the indie minded replied with, "wait a decade and then this sound will be in." When the band finally realized that stateliness inflected with the perfect dosage of optimism was what the British were looking for, Americans yet again turned an indifferent eye.
Even more frustrating, and all inclusive, is Manic Street Preachers' proclivity for following up more challenging and subversive offerings with efforts so watered down that the quality moments are left gasping for air. By following 2009's marvelous Journal for Plague Lovers with latest release Postcards from a Young Man, this is not exactly the case, yet the two albums do illustrate a band being superb versus being merely good, respectively.
Postcards from a Young Man, the Manics have stated, is a commercially motivated album. Fans like me who look to the band for their erudition (you can't wade through an archive of press clippings without tripping over a dozen or so quotes from bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire about his politics degree) should remember this when giving the album its cursory listen. Rather than craft songs similar in sound to the big world-renowned guitar bands of now, the Manics have opted to tinker with the late '90s sound that gained them fame following the disappearance of provocative lyricist and lead despairer Richey Edwards. In a move that both sells records and ties in with the album's theme of reflecting upon one's youth, the Manics have called upon such idols as Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen, Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses, and fellow Welsh rocker John Cale for assistance. All these elements don't exactly take the shape of the musical dreams of today's teens and young adults -- especially in America -- but Manic Street Preachers always have been an anachronistic bunch.
In a move that initially sounded ill-fated, a gospel choir was also recruited for Postcards from a Young Man. By some trick of fate, the integration works well, particularly on "Some Kind of Nothingness", where the choir, McCulloch, and singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield weave their voices into a gorgeous cacophony. Whereas Journal for Plague Lovers -- which was erected around Edwards's wordy and obscure lyrics -- was Steve Albini-produced and idiosyncratic, Postcards is harmonious and positive. The word "love" even pops up now and then, and not even in a "we don't want your fucking" sort of way. However, Postcards also sounds somewhat emotionless, but as Journal was a highly emotional affair to create, the Manics can be granted some leeway if they so choose to keep things blasé on its follow-up.
This lack of organic feeling, when paired with the continuous mention of "commercial" aims, becomes troubling. Are Manic Street Preachers using "commercial" as a cover for laziness? Think about it; are the kids really going to want to hear songs about the evils of the Internet, as in the JG Ballard referencing "A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun"? Are they going to care that "Auto Intoxication" has perhaps pioneered a sound that could be described as Rush gone post-punk? Or that, if we are lead to believe "Hazleton Avenue", true pleasure can be attained through an activity as simple as visiting a record shop? Tim Roth is the album's cover model. He was my primary lust object as a pre-teen, but then again, I wasn't the average teenage girl (I listened to the Manics, after all). It is commendable that, ten albums in, the band still bucks at following the in crowd, but combating trends with soulfulness and intellect is arguably more stirring than nagging the world about its computer habit.
Yet, for as long as there will be myriad Manics fans sneering at the band's less challenging efforts, there will forever be a curious teenager giving The Holy Bible its first spin and finding a light embedded in the bleakness, and another finding comfort in Everything Must Go's phoenix-rising-from-flame resolve. No matter Manic Street Preachers' commercial aims, this is the only thing that will matter once they have called it a day. Although far from being a disaster, the uninitiated should become familiar with something more enduring before settling for Postcards from a Young Man.