While far from a smashing return to form on par with Everything Must Go (their career high-water mark), Lifeblood should reassure the public that the Manics are not yet artistically bankrupt.
The Manic Street Preachers, along with Supergrass, are perhaps the most bizarre non-success stories of the past 10 years. When Radiohead's Floydian prog scored an unexpected breakthrough in 1997, many predicted that the Manics (as they are called) would be the next UK act to be embraced by the U.S. charts. Even the band themselves seemed convinced, releasing the panoramically expansive This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours -- a sprawling, grandiose album packed with politically-charged yet strikingly universal themes. Like Radiohead, The Manics were a British band that didn't seem to reflexively cling to its national origin, giving many hope of an imminent UK musical renaissance.
But Radiohead's Stateside success would prove to be an anomaly, as The Manics' chart triumph never came. Instead, the band that packed stadiums in their home country barely filled U.S. clubs to capacity. There was something profoundly sad about seeing the Manics performing their windswept epics in the close confines of the Chicago Metro on their U.S. tour in support of the album. Their domestic label, Virgin, apparently agreed, pulling all promotional dollars for the follow-up, the spectacular artistic wipeout that was Know Your Enemy.
Expectations were appropriately lowered for Lifeblood, yet the stakes were higher than ever. The Manics risked complete irrelevance with another dud as well as the prospect of becoming the insularly British band they had never wanted to be. How ironic that the group who once claimed they'd quit after their first album now stood within a stone's throw of dad-rock posterboys.
While far from a smashing return to form on par with Everything Must Go (their career high-water mark), Lifeblood should reassure the public that the Manics are not yet artistically bankrupt. To reclaim some of their past glories, the Manics delve into history -- albeit not to relive it. The ethereal synths subtly hint at what the lyrics make explicit: Bradfield, Wire, & Moore are in an '80s state of mind. Some will no doubt label them revivalists and shameless nostalgia-peddlers. Blatant namechecks of Morrissey and Marr and songs with titles like "Glasnost" and "1985" certainly provide fodder for the accusers.
But Lifeblood plays more like a eulogy than a tribute. There's an overwhelming sadness to the proceedings, as if the Manics are bidding farewell to the decade that birthed their musical heroes and shaped their sound. "A Song for Our Departure" and "Empty Souls", with their spare Doves-ish piano lines and Bradfield's mournful wail, find the Manics striking an unusually personal note. Unlike Truth, which never opted for subtle gestures when grand ones were possible, Lifeblood prefers more modest, minor shadings. The change suits them well. Bradfield, whose voice has never sounded more assured or earnest, complements his newfound range with increasingly expressive guitar work. Nowhere is this better exemplified than on "To Repel Ghosts", which easily ranks among the top five post-Richey tracks the band has released. (For those Stateside readers who might be unfamiliar, Richey James was the band's second guitarist before he abruptly disappeared prior to the recording of Everything Must Go.)
Lifeblood's melodic melancholia, aptly described by Wire as "elegiac pop", mostly works; however, their heavily-produced sound occasionally drifts into the maudlin. "Emily" is an especially egregious offender with its new-age keyboards and unintentionally hilarious lyrics ("Emily, a simple word called liberty"). Likewise, it's hard to imagine treacle like "Cardiffe Afterlife" slipping onto the album if not in the name of maintaining a consistent mood. Unfortunately, The Manics mistake deadening for sorrow.
Nonetheless, these small oversights hardly dwarf the band's accomplishments. The Manics, while perhaps not as essential as they were a decade ago, are carving out a new niche for themselves at a time when most bands have given up entirely on the creative process. Richey may be long dead, but there's still warm blood coursing through The Manics' veins. They are for real -- although maybe not in the way history had intended.